Bad Security Week for Apple

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-03-31

Bad Security Week for Apple

It was one security embarrassment after another for Apple the week of March 24.

It began at the CanSecWest show, where the annual hacker contest challenged attendees to compromise a Vista system, a Ubuntu Linux system and a MacBook Air. The first day was reserved for preauthentication attacks and would have netted $20,000, but nobody took the prize.

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On the second day, attackers were allowed to use default-installed client applications. Within minutes of the opening of the second day, the Mac was hijacked by security researcher Charlie Miller, who won the machine and a $10,000 prize for his efforts. Miller attacked the brand new Safari 3.1 browser through a new vulnerability, the details of which he declined to provide. The Vista and Ubuntu boxes survived the day.

On March 28, the attack surface expanded to include popular third-party applications, which should make for easy pickings on both Ubuntu and Vista. The Vista box took much longer to go down than originally anticipated; it seems SP1 makes these exploits harder, perhaps because of NX support for heap memory, or perhaps the hackers simply didn't prepare on SP1. But in the end, it went down through a new Flash Player vulnerability, which the hacker describes as cross-platform. The Ubuntu machine was the only one left standing. Perhaps the attackers didn't have time to try the Flash Player on Linux.

One more point about CanSecWest that should be made: It's just possible that the market for vulnerabilities, especially for preauthentication vulnerabilities, has higher prices than the CanSecWest show. Why blow a great vulnerability for $20,000 when you can get $50,000 elsewhere?

Even so, Apple doesn't tend to do well at these hacker events. It has a history of getting embarrassed. And back in the day of the Month of Whatever Bugs, the Month of Apple Bugs was probably the best of them. Put a Mac up against a serious attack, and it drops like a stone.

In owning the Mac, it's likely that Miller used this recently revealed vulnerability in the Safari Webkit to exploit the machine, but nobody's talking. Safari is prone to a remote code-execution vulnerability because it fails to adequately handle regular expressions with large, nested repetition counts. Inaccurate compilation lengths are calculated, and an overflow results.

Other Unpatched Flaws


Miller did not use two other unpatched vulnerabilities in Safari, also revealed just days after the browser was released. The first is a pretty simple overflow; all one need do is download a ZIP file with an overly long file name, and it allows code execution. The second allows injection of content in a window belonging to a trusted site.

Then a Slashdot thread reported on research that confirms other research that indicates Apple issues patches for known vulnerabilities more slowly than Microsoft, with the result that there are more unpatched vulnerabilities on Apple platforms.

In January, Microsoft's Jeff Jones issued a report comparing vulnerability disclosures and patches on several desktop OS platforms, including OS X 10.4 and Vista. One year after Vista's release, Microsoft had fixed 36 vulnerabilities over a total of nine patching events, and 30 unpatched vulnerabilities remained. In the first year of OS X 10.4, Apple fixed a total of 116 vulnerabilities over 17 patching events, and at the end there were 41 unpatched vulnerabilities.

And the data doesn't stop there. In the week of March 17, Apple issued another one of its  massive security updates, covering 87 different vulnerabilities (as measured by the CVE numbers). Of those 87 vulnerabilities, 44 have CVE numbers from 2007, four from 2006 and two from 2005. The oldest of these, CVE-2005-3352, was fixed by Apache in 2005. So I have no trouble believing that Apple is slower than a turtle in the tar pits, let alone Microsoft.

And yet the Mac continues not to be widely attacked in the real world. With their reputation among security professionals taking a nosedive and malware for the Mac on the increase, things could change real soon. Unless all that talk of the Mac market share increasing is just hot air.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack.

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