Does the Mac have an edge against state-sponsored hacking?

When hackers broke into Google's computer network nearly two years ago, their first step was to take over Microsoft Windows machines running in the company's China offices. Would Google have been better off had those workers been running the Mac?

Not necessarily, according to researchers at iSec Partners, a security consultancy that is part of NCC Group. Speaking at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas Wednesday, iSec founder Alex Stamos and his team of researchers took a look at the typical stages of the type of intrusion that hit Google -- called an advanced persistent threat (APT) attack -- and compared how the Mac would do versus Windows 7.

Their conclusion: Macs provide good protection against the initial phases of the attack, but once the bad guys are on the network, it's a whole different story. "They're pretty good for [protecting from] remote exploitation," Stamos said. "[But] once you install OS X server you're toast."

The problem is that many of Apple's server protocols -- mDNS, Apple Remote Desktop, the Mac Kerberos authentication, for example -- use weak authentication models that give the attackers ways of getting access to parts of the network that should be blocked. "Every password-based authentication mechanism in OS X has problems," Stamos said.

For example, Mac's Keychain software is vulnerable to what's known as a brute-force attack, he said.

That could be a big problem to a company facing a determined attacker, because it's pretty easy for APT hackers to get a foothold on a desktop, and they have shown that they're willing to do hard work in order to break into a network. Stamos, whose firm investigates hacking incidents, says that it's often easy to trick someone in any company into installing software that they shouldn't -- the first step in an APT attack. "Most people get malware because they intentionally install it," he said. "At an institution of thousands of employees, you have to assume that one of them going to get tricked."

In many APT attacks, the hackers first break into social media accounts belonging to friends of their victims. They mine them for information, and then use these accounts to send very realistic looking messages to people working within the company they want to hit. If they can trick an employee into downloading software or visiting a website laden with attack code, they can get a foothold in the network.

It's the next step -- moving around the network and getting access to corporate secrets -- that's tricky. And that's where Apple is at a disadvantage, according to the iSec research.

Mac users have been pretty well insulated from APT attacks to date. Rob Lee, a director with computer investigations firm Mandiant says he's never seen a Mac compromised during his investigations. They simply aren't targets because they aren't widely used in the enterprise customers that Mandiant typically investigates, he said Wednesday. In fact, when a customer comes to Mandiant after its been hacked, Lee often recommends that executives go out and buy a Macintosh so that they can continue to do company business with less risk of re-infection.

Security experts at Black Hat this week agree that these targeted hacking attacks are unparalleled and extremely widespread. On Tuesday, McAfee released a report saying that it had uncovered evidence of a sophisticated hacking operation that had broken into systems at more than 70 companies over the past five years.

"I am convinced that every company in every conceivable industry with significant size and valuable intellectual property and trade secrets has been compromised (or will be shortly), with the great majority of the victims rarely discovering the intrusion," wrote Dmitri Alperovitch, McAfee's vice president of threat research in a blog post.

With Macs becoming increasingly popular in the corporate world, IT staffers should at least be thinking of how they'd do in an APT attack, according to Stamos. That's why his company did the research. "We have a lot of clients that have significant Mac penetration," he said. "We've seen Macs escape from the prison in the marketing department."

Robert McMillan covers computer security and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Robert on Twitter at @bobmcmillan. Robert's e-mail address is robert_mcmillan@idg.com

This story, "Does the Mac have an edge against state-sponsored hacking?" was originally published by IDG News Service .

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