Late last week, “Stephan.com,” a Los Angeles-based actor and programmer, fell upon a potential vulnerability in Mac OS 10.4 Tigers new Dashboard application layer.
Stephan, who has already developed several Dashboard widgets—including two “ambient monitors” that work both with Apples Mail program and with Gmail, called flores and coras—discovered that what he described as “annoying widgets” can be created and installed fairly easily.
To prove his point, he set up the following Web page on his site, which immediately loads Zaptastic, a countdown widget for GreenZap, a supposed PayPal competitor, onto Mac OS 10.4 desktops as soon as the Web page loads.
Tiger users may disable the widget by launching Apples Activity Monitor utility and manually quitting the process; then they can remove the widget manually from the widget folder in the users home library. Nevertheless, this exploit raises questions about Dashboard, which has been marketed as a fun, safe and useful component of Tiger.
An Apple spokesperson said the company has not responded to requests for comment.
On his Zaptastic Web page, Stephan pointed out that it would be easy for a programmer to make a widget icon for a pornographic image that an unsuspecting user could mistakenly launch in Dashboard.
Perhaps more troubling, programmers with less-than-honorable intentions could set up their mal-widgets with the capacity to load a flurry of porn and gambling Web sites or even to harvest passwords from Gmail accounts, for example, with just a few lines of code.
Despite these concerns, Stephan said he thinks Apple has done an all-right job in protecting its users from malicious widgets, although he did suggest that Apple rethink its logic behind the auto-install process in Dashboard and give users a way in which to remove widgets easily, preferably outside the Dashboard layer.
Unlike Windows, Stephan explained in a phone interview with eWEEK.com, Apples use of open source throughout much of its Unix-based operating system means that users can see the code being used in a given dashboard widget—and how to counteract it—or at least warn others of its potential havoc.
“Im really dead set against security through obscurity. In DVD encryption, for example, [the people who developed the technology] made its kind of encryption a secret, and the problem with that, eventually people figure it out,” Stephan said.
According to Stephan, Apple must balance security with usability. He added that the question in these cases is not preventing people from breaking into a system. Instead, its the cyber-equivalent of locking Tiger users doors and putting a watch dog on guard, he said.
For his part, Stephan said he sees the work he did over the past several days as a sort of inoculation with a dead virus that will make people aware of this possibility.
Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox said he is skeptical about the ability to slip an evil widget through Tigers built-in security, despite Stephan.coms proof-of-concept. For one thing, OS X is set up so that full applications do not install without the users password, and widgets on their own can only get so far.
Moreover, users can simply unclick the “Open Safe Files After Downloading” button in Safaris general preferences pane to avoid the problem entirely.
At the same time, Wilcox warned that the larger problem is users going into what he calls “bad Internet neighborhoods.”
For example, Apples Dashboard widget download page is pretty safe, but users who look for widgets elsewhere run a greater risk of picking up something questionable.
“Windows users face greater risks than Mac users, but the risky behavior is the same,” Wilcox said.