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Apple trails behind world+Microsoft in 'Flashback' malware debacle

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Apple went out of its way to make life difficult for the Russian security firm that first alerted the world to the spread of the now infamous Flashback Trojan on Mac computers, it has emerged. However the fruitbite-branded firm has now pledged to resolve the problem, well after security firms - and Microsoft - had acted.

The Flashback Trojan created a zombie army now numbering more than 650,000 Mac machines by exploiting a Java hole that Apple only patched last Tuesday, six weeks after a patch for Windows machines became available.

Russian anti-virus firm Dr Web came up with the chilling statistics after it successfully managed to sinkhole one of the command-and-control servers used to control compromised Mac OS X machines hit by at the attack. Boris Sharov, chief exec of Dr. Web, said that its attempts to alert Apple about the issue went ignored.

"We’ve given them all the data we have," Sharov told Forbes. "We’ve heard nothing from them until this."

Worse still, Apple asked a Russian registrar to take down a domain Dr Web had established in order to observe and analyze the botnet in the mistaken belief that it was acting as a command and control server for the zombie network.

Sharov blames the communication problems and mix-ups on the difficulty of getting in touch with Apple's security team, something that has not been an issue in dealing with Microsoft for many years. Even before Bill Gates' Trustworthy Computing memo Microsoft staffers were involved in active outreach to the security community, attending important conference such as Black Hat and Virus Bulletin, for example. To its credit Microsoft has maintained friendly working relationships with security researchers over many years.

By contrast Apple has only recently conceded that malware is an issue on its platform. Its relationship with security researchers remains spiky even after the arrival of ex-Mozilla security boss Window Snyder back in March 2010.

For example, last year noted Apple security researcher Charlie Miller created a proof-of-concept mobile app demonstrating a flaw in Apple’s security restrictions. The manufacturer responded by suspending his developer’s license.

However signs are emerging of a shift in attitudes at Cupertino in the aftermath of the Flashback Trojan botnet debacle. Apple said it was developing software that will detect and remove the Flashback malware.

Discussing its approaches towards a security problem that is not yet fully resolved is a shift from Apple's traditional policy "not [to] disclose, discuss or confirm security issues until a full investigation has occurred and any necessary patches or releases are available", as Paul Ducklin of Sophos notes.

Pending the arrival of a removal tool from apple security firms including Kaspersky Labs have developed their own Flashback removal tools. Meanwhile Doctor Web has established a site - www.drweb.com/flashback - that allows consumers to check whether their Mac machines are infected. Users need to supply their Hardware UUID to use the site, something the more privacy conscious might baulk at. The best option for such people is probably to run the Kaspersky removal tool, as a precaution, before installing free anti-virus software for Macs from the likes of Sophos.

Doctor Web has published a timeline of the Flashback Trojan here. ®

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