What Would Apple Do

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2006-02-20 Print this article Print

?"> Weve also had a release of malware for Linux over the weekend. Researchers are still arguing over exactly what it is and how significant it is, and in fact it appears that this one attacks PHP vulnerabilities, a problem more likely to be found on servers. More important is that—technically—the same social engineering approaches that work elsewhere work on Linux.

But realistically, the situation on Linux is not the same. Sure, you hear stories all the time about guys who set up grandma on a Linux system, but these are curiosities at best (and most of them are probably lies too).
I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Linux desktop users are either on managed, locked-down networks or technically sophisticated users who recognize a technical scam when they see it. On the other hand, the Mac community is filled with novices, at least as naive about these things as the average Windows user.

And then theres the "old version" problem. Mac OS X has a history of serious vulnerabilities, many exploitable remotely without user intervention. I dont know of any in the current version, but do all Mac users apply updates when Apple releases them? We know that Windows users dont. Why should Mac users be any different?

Some experts say that Apples switch to Intel chips may allow OS X exploits. Click here to read more.

Larry Seltzer disagrees—Click here for his take on the matter.

In fact, with respect to malware, Windows has an ironic and unhappy security advantage over the Mac: Anti-virus software is common on Windows. I bet few Mac users use it. And since there is no OEM market for Macs, there is no serious chance for anti-virus software to get preloaded on Macs.

Actually, Mac users have been treated to a steady stream of security hubris for years, being told that they are immune to the problems that afflict Windows users, and they have basically been right. But that could change. And if it did change, things could get really bad, really fast. You may be familiar with the idea of a computer "monoculture"—the idea that when so much of the market is Windows-based a single attack against it can thereby damage a huge percentage of the overall community. The counterargument is one for diversity in operating systems as a sort of "public health" measure for the Internet. But the monoculture also creates an environment where the large majority identifies itself as subject to those same attacks, and the security industry identifies them as well. The Mac culture, the counter-monoculture, is unprepared for a major attack just as Native Americans were unprepared for the germs Europeans brought with them to the new world. So what if there were an attack? What if a series of clever attacks based on well-designed social engineering and maybe even OS vulnerabilities were launched against the Mac community? What would Apple do?

I must admit I was surprised, upon Googling "virus site:apple.com," to see three links related to actual OS X anti-virus programs: The free (as in speech and beer) ClamAV, Norton AntiVirus 10.0 for Macintosh and Intego VirusBarrier X4. It looks like you can buy anti-virus software with a Mac from Apple, but they offer just the Norton and Intego programs from among hundreds of programs they offer with your Mac and its not preinstalled. Go to the Apple Store at your local upscale mall and theyll tell you that you dont need anti-virus software.

In fact, Apple used to offer McAfees Virex as part of their .Mac service, but there were so many support problems that they withdrew it as an option, although they do still provide .DAT files.

So in an outbreak anti-virus software probably wouldnt be an easy answer for Apple, although they could raise its profile by making it more prominent on the site and offering it as a preload. That doesnt solve the problem for existing users, but perhaps ClamAV could rush in and fill the gap. I think Apple would more likely resort to a campaign of education, and thats a frightening prospect unless Mac users turn out to have vast reserves of common sense unavailable to Windows users. Maybe theyre still basically safe, but I would advise Mac users to get some sort of protection now before the unthinkable happens. Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. More from Larry Seltzer Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEK.com Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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