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Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security

Quicktime flaw on Macs brings out the crazies

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[tags]Windows,MacOS, security flaws, patches, press coverage[/tags]
There’s been a lot of froth in the press about a vulnerability discovered in a “Hack the Mac” contest conducted recently.  (Example stories here and here.)  I’m not really sure where this mini-hysteria is coming from—there isn’t really anything shocking here.

First of all, people shouldn’t be surprised that there are security flaws in Apple products.  After all, those are complex software artifacts, and the more code and functionality present, the more likely it is the case that there will be flaws present—including serious flaws leading to security problems.  Unless special care is taken in design and construction (not evident in any widely-used system) vulnerabilities are likely to be present.

Given that, the discovery of one serious flaw doesn’t necessarily mean there are hundreds more lurking beneath the surface and that MacOS X is as bad (or worse) than some other systems.  Those bloggers and journalists who have some vulture genomes seem particularly prone to making sweeping announcements after each Apple-based flaw (and each Linux bug) is disclosed or a story about vulnerabilities is published.  Yes, there are some problems, and there are undoubtedly more yet to be found.  That doesn’t mean that those systems are inherently dangerous or even as buggy and difficult to protect as, for example, Windows XP.  Drawing such conclusions based on one or two data points is not appropriate; these same people should likewise conclude that eating at restaurants anywhere in the US is dangerous because someone got food poisoning at a roadside stand in Mexico last year!

To date, there appear to be fewer flaws in Apple products than we have seen in some other software.  Apple MacOS X is built on a sturdy base (BSD Unix) and doesn’t have a huge number of backwards compatibility features, which is often a source of flaws in other vendors’ products.  Apple engineers, too, seem to be a little more careful and savvy about software quality issues than other vendors, as least as evidenced by the relative number of crashes and “blue screen” events in their products.  The result is that MacOS X is pretty good right out of the box.

Of course, this particular flaw is not with MacOS X, but with Java code that is part of the Quicktime package for WWW browsers.  The good news is that it is not really a MacOS problem; the bad news is that it is a serious bug that got widely distributed; and the worse news is that it potentially affects other browsers and operating systems.

I have been troubled by the fact that we (CERIAS, and before that COAST) have been rebuffed on every attempt over the last dozen years to make any contact with security personnel inside Apple.  I haven’t seen evidence that they are really focused on information security in the way that other major companies such as Sun, HP and Microsoft are, although the steady patching of flaws that have not yet been widely reported outside the company does seem to indicate some expertise and activity somewhere inside Apple.  Problems such as this Quicktime flaw don’t give warm fuzzy feelings about that, however.

Apple users should not be complacent.  There are flaws yet to be discovered, and users are often the weakest link.  Malware, including viruses, can get into MacOS X and cause problems, although they are unlikely to ever be of the number and magnitude as bedevil Windows boxes (one recent article noted that vendors are getting around 125 new malware signatures a day—the majority are undoubtedly for Windows platforms).  And, of course, Mac machines (and Linux and….) also host browsers and other software that execute scripts and enable attacks.  Those who use MS Word have yet more concerns

The bottom line. No system is immune to attacks.  All users should be cautious and informed.  Apple systems still appear to be safer than their counterparts running Windows XP (the jury is out on Vista so far), and are definitely easier to maintain and use than similarly secured systems running Linux.  You should continue to use the system that is most appropriate for your needs and abilities, and that includes your abilities to understand and configure security features to meet your security needs.  For now, my personal systems continue to be a MacBook Pro (with XP and Vista running under Parallels) and a Sun Solaris machine.  Your own milage should—and probably will—vary.

Comments

Posted by Luke Hoersten
on Monday, April 30, 2007 at 03:37 PM

You say “secured systems running Linux.” Can you expand on that? Do you mean SELinux or just plain vanilla Linux? Also, do your usability complaints for Linux apply to Ubuntu or are they even distro specific?

Posted by Spaf
on Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 07:44 AM

I mean Linux in general—of which there are many versions, and many configurations.  That issue alone makes it difficult to determine exactly what interface, what security options, and so on need to be applied.

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