Mac OSX Security

Posted on Wednesday 8 March 2006

Recently, there was an article from ZDNet about how a Mac was “hacked” in a mere thirty minutes. Much was made about how insecure Mac OS X is because of this article.

However, one very important fact that was never mentioned in the ZDNet Wintel propaganda article was that the person who “hacked” the machine had a local account on the machine, something that is not typical of most internet servers. This seemingly minor detail changes the whole story. It is the difference between robbing a bank, and stealing from a bank while working there as a bank teller.the bank robber has to get by all of the security measures, the teller starts by being able to bypass most of the security—not quite the same task.

Dave Schroeder, over at the University of Wisconsin, decided to hold a real test, with no local account access given to the hackers. After 38 hours, the test was concluded, and no one had managed to “hack” the Mac mini used. His notes about the test held on the University of Wisconsin’s network and his conclusions are quite telling. Dave poted the following statistics:

The site received almost a half a million requests via the web.
There were over 4000 login attempts via ssh.
The ipfw log grew at 40MB/hour and contains 6 million events logged.
More test results and information will be published here at a future date.

He also makes the following points:

Almost all consumer Mac OS X machines will:

Not give any external entities local account access
Not even have any ports open
In addition to the above, most consumer machines will also be behind personal router/firewall devices, further reducing exposure

Most of the exploits and vulnerabilities on the Mac have required some user interaction. This is not the case with most of the Windows-based exploits and vulnerabilities. Also, Windows generally requires third-party software to secure it properly, Mac OS X does not.

This isn’t to say that Mac users should be oblivious to basic computer security precautions, like running an anti-virus package, properly configuring the firewall on their Mac, and not opening attachments from people they do not trust.

No computer operating system is invulnerable, however, the Mac OS X operating system does require far less effort and maintenance to keep it running properly and securely. For more on this, please see my previous post on Macs vs. Wintel.


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