Mac OS X Security

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Preface and Disclaimer

This paper presents an overview of the security situation of Mac OS X. The purpose of this paper is to present security in a very easy-to-understand fashion. I firmly believe that there is an absurd amount of FUD about computer security in general, mostly propagated by vendors of antivirus software and their partners. In the case of Mac OS X in specific, it is very difficult to get accurate, non-sensational information about what the real security threats are. This paper began as a genuine effort to figure out, and then convey, what the real status of Mac OS X security is.

Please be aware that I am no security expert (nor am I a hacker), but simply a normal computer nerd with a passion for most things relating to computers and design. I have made every effort to consult the writings of security experts and convey accurate information. If any security ninjas out there find any inaccuracies, please let me know.

With the exception of the section “Out Of The Box Security and Additional Hardening Measures”, the entire report refers to Mac OS X 10.4 and prior versions. Where possible, I state specific versions of the operating system that I am referring to.

I’ve broken up this report into several pages because it is quite long. You can also download the report in its entirety in PDF format.

Table of Contents

  1. Preface and Disclaimer
  2. Executive Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. OS X Background
  5. Examining the OS X Security Record
  6. Out Of The Box Security and Additional Hardening Measures
  7. Conclusion

Executive Summary

Mac OS X has for the most part, compared to other operating systems, enjoyed a carefree history when it comes to security. There are certainly some vulnerabilities, but relatively few known exploits for them. There are also almost no examples of attacks in the wild. The few attacks that researchers have noted in the wild, although highly publicized, are mostly harmless. This however should not be taken as evidence that OS X is difficult or impossible to attack.

Two reasonable explanations for the lack of any large-scale security threats facing OS X are its small market share and superior approach to security. OS X is based in BSD UNIX and uses time tested open source software for its security foundation. It was designed to be a multiuser operating system and has strong built-in file based permission system. OS X is also very secure out of the box and includes many easily accessible additional features. By default the root user in OS X is disabled, and most normal users should never even need to use it. Network services are also disabled by default. OS X provides a unique combination of good security by default and ease of use, making it a relatively secure system for normal users.

The first virus for OS X, OSX.Leap.A was discovered in the wild in February of 2006. Although this particular virus was innocuous, it should demonstrate that OS X is certainly not immune to security threats. While the OS X market share is small, it is steadily increasing. As is becomes a more popular operating system, security threats are likely to increase and become more severe. OS X is not by any means a bulletproof operating system and Apple will have to continue to be vigilant about security in order to stay ahead of hackers.

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1. kj

hot nerd.