Apple's latest attempt to combat Mac malware with Gatekeeper in the upcoming Mac OS X 10.8, or "Mountain Lion," doesn't go far enough to protect users, security experts said.
Microsoft have added security features to the next versions of their respective
operating systems in an effort to combat new, more complicated security
threats. However, security experts remain skeptical the steps taken would be
enough against these malware threats.
On Feb. 16,
Apple previewed the new Gatekeeper security feature for its new operating
system, Mac OS X 10.8, or Mountain Lion, which is due this summer. The new
security setting lets users define what sources would be able to install
software on the system. Gatekeeper would prevent users from downloading and
installing malicious software from uncertified and pirated sources.
Mountain Lion would allow users to install only applications found on the Mac
App Store, the application store Apple launched a little over a year ago for
desktop and laptop software. While the Mac App Store offers "maximum
security," users can download software from sites that have a signed
Developer ID certificate, or from any source.
"designed to drive up costs and effort" for developing malware on OS
X, said Roel Schouwenberg, a senior researcher with Kaspersky Lab. However, he
didn't think Gatekeeper would "bring a stop to OS X malware."
Gatekeeper, Apple is tacitly admitting that Mac malware does exist, and that
it's increasing. Apple is trying to counter the threat by making it more
expensive and difficult for cyber-criminals to develop malicious applications.
either go through Apple's vetting process to get listed in the Mac App Store or
sign up for a developer account and receive a valid digital certificate to sign
the software. If Apple finds out a developer is releasing malicious programs,
it can revoke the certificate, forcing the developer to try to obtain a new
cyber-criminals have in the past successfully posed as legitimate companies and
tricked certificate authorities into issuing digital certificates, Schouwenberg
noted. There's no reason they wouldn't be able to pay, or use a stolen credit
card to pay, the $99-a-year fee to join the Mac Developer Program and get a
valid digital signature. The criminals can also steal someone else's
certificate and use it to sign their malicious software if they can't create an
It's not that
far-fetched to consider criminals would be able to take someone else's
certificate. In the case of Stuxnet, its creators signed with a stolen digital
certificate, said Schouwenberg.
problem with Gatekeeper is that Apple is making software development more
expensive for legitimate developers as well, said Schouwenberg. It was possible
that the developers who don't want to deal with paying for the certificate, or
figure out how to use it, would ask users to temporarily change Gatekeeper
settings "for compatibility reasons" in order to download software,
a "pretty good idea," but the implementation is "flawed,"
Chester Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at Sophos Canada, wrote on the Naked Security blog. Gatekeeper is based
on the LSQuarantine technology that powers XProtect, a rudimentary scanner
integrated into Mac OS X to check whether a file being downloaded is a known
piece of malware. Gatekeeper would help reduce user exposure to known Trojans
by reducing where they can download from, said Wisniewski.
what Gatekeeper doesn't catch that might inspire budding criminal authors to
take the next step in creating more advanced malware for OS X," Wisniewski
At the moment,
if the source of an infected file is a USB drive or networks share, and not the
Internet, Gatekeeper won't be able to detect the malware, Wisniewski said.
Digital signatures apply to only executable files, which means users remain
vulnerable to malicious PDFs, Flash, shell scripts and Java. There are plenty
of ways for malicious developers to keep creating new ways to attack Mac OS X.
clearly "betting on reputation" to fight malware, said Schouwenberg.
While reputation plays a significant role in anti-malware efforts, it is not
enough, but it just encourages criminals to adopt more
"anti-reputation" techniques, said Schouwenberg.
There may be
an uptick in the number of "Trojanized applications," where a
perfectly legitimate download has been modified to include malware, said
Schouwenberg. There have already been a few such cases, although they remain
sense for the malware evolution to go this way," said Schouwenberg.
Apple is not
the only one trying to beef up the operating system's security capabilities.
integrating antivirus software into its Windows 8 operating system, which the
company plans to release later this year. The existing Windows Defender
program, which Microsoft first began shipping with Windows Vista, will be
expanded to incorporate the existing Microsoft Security Essentials malware
scanner. With Windows 8, users will be getting out-of-the-box protection
against malware and a desktop firewall.
The problem is
that many users will think that since they have built-in security software,
they don't need to get a comprehensive security application. Considering that
many malware developers test their latest creations to make sure they can't be
detected by popular antivirus software, criminals would start targeting the
broad segment of users who will just have the built-in option, Schouwenberg
that Windows Defender hasn't "done too much" to impact the security
landscape in regard to reducing threats since its inclusion in Vista, it's not
likely the new features in Windows 8 will make that "much of a
difference," said Schouwenberg.