Are hackers now gunning for the Mac?

In early October Apple released a small series of patches for Mac OS X version 10.2 and later. Most of the fixes in this group blocked possible denial-of-service problems that are, to date, theoretical. For example, one addresses vulnerability in a Unix printing system that might expose passwords to hackers, in uncommon situations.

In the Windows world, no sooner is an OS hole publicized than someone writes a hack to exploit it. Since the last Mac OS X security update was the third in a month, and because some of the holes looked ripe for exploiting, I have to wonder whether the Mac is now attracting more unwanted attention from hackers.

According to Tim Bajarin, principal analyst with research firm Creative Strategies and a longtime Apple watcher, "The vulnerabilities unfortunately are inherent in the Unix world, and Apple's choice to build OS X on a Unix foundation brings with it this risk. Apple's move is more proactive: They are constantly testing the OS to catch any potential security holes before they become an issue. In that sense, they have gone to school on Microsoft's problems in this space and are making sure they leave no stone unturned in their quest to keep the OS as secure as possible."

"At the same time," Bajarin continues, "the media attention about Apple's OS being secure has clearly tweaked the interest of hackers, but as of now we have not seen any serious effort by the hacking community to deliberately expose any holes or attack the OS."

John Gruber, author of the Weblog Daring Fireball and another savvy Mac observer, thinks the recent spate of updates is just a small, short-term uptick, and doesn't indicate that the Mac is losing the high ground in the war against viruses, worms, and Trojan horses. On the Mac's reputation for being more secure than Windows, he says, "It's important to note that Macs tend not to get attacked, not that they can't be attacked. The vast majority of the fixes in Mac OS X security updates are in response to potential exploits, not actual exploits."

"And many of the fixes in typical Mac OS X security updates aren't Mac-specific," Gruber says, "but rather are updates to open-source components and tools. Apple has been diligent with regard to keeping Mac OS X's Unix layer up-to-date."

My take? This just means that Mac users have to keep their OS patched--like Windows users--but there's no cause for alarm. Apple has an automatic update service, just as Microsoft does for Windows. Using this service is the best way to keep your Apple software current.

The Unix-based nature of Mac OS X remains much more of a strength than a liability. Although it allows greater exposure, it also makes it likely that programmers can and will respond with fixes quickly.

Regardless of whether this tarnishes Apple's halo, the bottom line remains that attacks on the Mac have been vastly fewer than those on Windows. Most typical Mac users still have little to fear from the miscreants we Windows users have to vigilantly guard against.

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Rebecca Freed

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