Massive Mac OS X update shatters illusion of security

Apple unleashed a fix for Mac OS X fixing a record 134 vulnerabilities and illustrating that the Mac OS is not invulnerable

Perhaps you've heard that the Apple Mac OS X operating system is simply more secure by design and not prone to the security flaws and vulnerabilities that plague the dominant Microsoft Windows operating system? Well, don't believe the hype. Apple unleashed an update for Mac OS X this week which fixes a massive 134 vulnerabilities.

To put that in perspective, Microsoft had a record breaking month with the October Patch Tuesday -- when it fixed 49 vulnerabilities. October and November combined, Microsoft only fixed 60 flaws. To surpass 134 vulnerabilities, you have to combine six months' worth of Patch Tuesdays -- from June through November. And, in fairness to Microsoft, Patch Tuesdays address a variety of applications such as Microsoft Office programs, SQL Server, Exchange Server, etc. that are outside of the Windows operating system itself.

Apple may release fewer total updates, and it may patch on a less frequent or regular basis, but when the dust settles it turns out that Apple is scrambling to fix just as many flaws -- and sometimes more -- than Microsoft has to address in the Windows operating system (and the rest of the combined software managed through Windows Update). And, every year Mac OS X is compromised in a matter of minutes by hackers competing in the Pwn2Own contest.

In fact, Charlie Miller, the winner of the Pwn2Own contest to hack the Mac for last three consecutive years, says that in spite of the massive number of flaws fixed by Apple with this update, there are still many vulnerabilities left open. Miller tweeted "Apple releases huge patch, still miss all my bugs. Makes you realize how many bugs are in their code (or they're very unlucky)."

Apple doesn't deal with the spectrum of software that Microsoft does in its Patch Tuesday security bulletins, but it does include fixes for Adobe Flash in its updates because it bundles the technology with the Mac OS -- or at least it did. To Apple's credit, it turns out that 55 of the vulnerabilities are related to Adobe Flash in some way.

This revelation supports Apple's crusade against Adobe Flash -- based largely on security related issues. It was also discovered that Adobe Flash can be a significant drain on the battery life of a MacBook Air. As of the latest release of Mac OS X, Apple is no longer bundling Flash, so future updates from Apple may be significantly smaller.

I am aware of all of the arguments that Mac OS X is more secure despite the massive number of vulnerabilities. While that can be debated, it is also not relevant. What is relevant is that Mac OS X is not invulnerable, despite the perception by many Mac users.

Mac users are lulled into a false sense of security -- a combination of the hype that the Mac is just secure by default, and the fact that Mac's are largely ignored by malware developers because the market isn't big enough to be worth the effort.

Mac OS X has been gaining market share, though, and may start creeping onto the malware radar. When that happens, malware developers will apparently have a vast array of vulnerabilities to exploit, and Mac OS X users could be in for a culture shock.

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Tags online securityAppleMac OSsecuritysoftwareMac OS Xoperating systemsmalware

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)

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