Ahead of the Curve: OS X worms overhyped?

Apple's got a worm -- or several, as panicked news headlines of multiple OS X security flaws in the past several weeks have trumpeted. Much has been made in the press about the Mac OS X Leap.A virus and last week's discovery of a Safari metadata exploit, along with the poor Mac users who have been knocked from their perceived perch of safety.

But rather than marking the first viruses to infiltrate the Mac OS X fortress, as many press reports claimed, the vulnerabilities are among many potential security risks that Apple continuously and proactively tracks. Furthermore, the "critical" label affixed to the viruses by security vendors are alarmist, inciting a code-red threat level for potential security risks that Mac users can avoid through commonsense precautions.

A media feeding frenzy has erupted over the OS X Leap.A worm and the Safari browser filesystem metadata proof-of-concept exploit. It is a nonstory that has been given legs by virus software vendors that get their names in the papers by branding as extremely critical malware that's been harmless to date -- the very same vendors that then admit that one check box's worth of tilting the balance between convenience and safety is all that's required. For example, to avoid Leap.A, don't accept potentially executable file transfers during a chat session. To disarm the Safari filesystem metadata exploit, tell the Safari browser not to open safe downloads automatically.

One industry analyst points directly to the security companies as instigators of the recent spate of attacks on OS X.

Rob Enderle, principal at the Enderle Group, said that for the past several months security companies have been "showcasing" where Apple is vulnerable. "Then some yo-yo develops an attack," Enderle said. "This is not a coincidence."

True enough, there are unsophisticated Mac users sharing the delusion that the big silver X is a shield of safety, despite savvy Mac users', developers', and Apple's own cautions about the hazards of this thinking. There are watchmen who ensure that their notions of fair limits on corporate and individual success are defended and who see attacks as servants in the just cause of humbling the mighty. Then there's the media, setting the fruit of bored hackers in 72-point type. This combination creates a world of opportunity for half-wits for whom the fuss we're making now is as close to success as they'll ever get. As for the distribution of "proof of concept" exploits in directly usable form, that's a disturbing shortcut to fame.

Call the vendor, not a reporter.

It only takes one touch of truth to show this manufactured tempest for what it is. Stories claiming that Leap.A is OS X's first brush with malware are lazy journalism. Apple tracks and patches real and potential security holes proactively through its Software Update service. Several pages on Apple's support site, including this one, provide frank details of exploitable aspects of the open and proprietary components of OS X and the measures that Apple has taken to deal with them. Apple never delivers blind fixes; every patch it ships includes a link to a page detailing the fixes in that release. This is an opportunity to educate and enlighten; but it is no crisis, no fall of the mighty. And it is not news.

--Ephraim Schwartz contributed to this article.

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Tom Yager

InfoWorld
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