Snow Leopard Reveals Cracks in Apple's Mac OS X Security Reputation

By Don Reisinger  |  Posted 2009-08-27

Snow Leopard Reveals Cracks in Apple's Mac OS X Security Reputation

Mac OS X is viewed by many as the most secure operating system on the market. It's certainly considered far more secure than Microsoft's Windows operating system.  

But with a report hitting the wire Wednesday claiming Apple's new Mac OS X release, Snow Leopard, will feature a malware-detection tool, some of those beliefs might be put into question.

According to reports, Mac OS X will feature an application that will scan the user's Mac for known trojans. It will also flag malicious files if they are downloaded from Safari, iChat, Entourage and a few other applications. There's just one catch: that feature will only look for two trojans. Every other possibly damaging trojan will not be scanned for.

So while the feature probably won't keep too many users safe if they're affected by anything other than those two trojans, it's the fact that Apple felt compelled to build it into Mac OS X that should receive more attention. After all, this is a company that has created the mindset that Mac OS X is secure enough that users won't need to worry about all those malicious files they will find on Windows.

The myth of security

As a Mac OS X owner, I can say that the operating system has faced far fewer security issues than my Windows PC. It's a simple fact. But perhaps the reason for that isn't so simple. Apple, in many of its "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" ads, makes it a point to highlight the security issues Windows suffers from. In fact, it has become a key component in its marketing strategy.

But whether or not Mac OS X is truly more secure than Windows is up for debate. Security is a financial game. The more users, the greater the opportunity for malicious hackers to turn those affected individuals into cash. That's precisely why Windows, thanks to its dominating market share, is pelted with malware every day. Malicious hackers know that as long as they can target millions, they will find thousands that will succumb to their ploys.

That pool is much smaller on Mac OS X. Apple's operating system is woefully behind Microsoft in OS market share. And the chances of that changing anytime soon are slight. Realizing that, most hackers have realized that there's more to gain by targeting Windows users than Mac OS X users. More people equals more money. 

Facing Up to the Truth

But Mac OS X security has become a hot-button issue lately because those hackers are starting to realize that Mac OS X owners have a swagger Windows users don't. Apple has fostered a mentality that makes Mac OS X users believe they won't face any security issues. They feel safe on Mac OS X. It's what the malware distributors want them to believe. And it's precisely why Mac OS X security has become such a front-page issue as of late.

More outbreaks

Over the past few months, we have seen several Mac OS X security issues hit the wire. From security outbreaks to an update that included several security fixes, it was becoming clear that Mac OS X's reputation for strong security wasn't as reliable as some believed. And if Mac OS X Snow Leopard does, in fact, feature that new malware detector, it could change everything. Just don't expect Apple to change.

"The Mac is designed with built-in technologies that provide protection against malicious software and security threats right out of the box," Apple wrote on the company's Mac OS X Snow Leopard page. "However, since no system can be 100 percent immune from every threat, anti-virus software may offer additional protection."

I'm a little shocked by that statement. Although Apple does admit that no system is totally immune from issues, it says anti-virus software "may" offer additional protection. I think that perpetuates the myth that end users don't need to worry about Mac OS X security.

It would be more honest for Apple to say that users should install anti-virus software for additional protection. It would have saved Apple from any criticism it might face if its users face a widespread security outbreak. The company could say that it was warning consumers the whole time, but they just didn't want to listen.

Say what you will about Microsoft and its less-than-stellar handling of security, but at least it makes it a priority. It knows that Windows users face security problems. It understands that it can't do everything. So in an attempt to make it right, the company promotes the use of third-party software to ensure users are doing everything they can to be kept safe.

Perhaps that's what Apple has planned with its new malware detector in Snow Leopard. Maybe this the beginning of Apple admitting that its operating system is just as likely to suffer security issues as any other operating system. I really do hope it is.

But if I had to judge from history, I doubt Apple will changes its tune.

Rocket Fuel