Apple smashes patch record with gigantic update

Fixes 134 flaws with Mac OS X update, 55 in Flash alone

Apple on Wednesday patched more than 130 vulnerabilities in Mac OS X, smashing a record the company set last March when it fixed over 90 flaws.

The update for OS X 10.6, a.k.a. Snow Leopard, and OS X 10.5, better known as Leopard, was Apple's first since September and the seventh for the year.

Calling the update "huge," Mac vulnerability expert Charlie Miller pointed out that even with a staggering 134 patches, there were plenty of flaws still around.

"Apple releases huge patch, still miss all my bugs," said Miller in a tweet late Wednesday. "Makes you realize how many bugs are in their code, or they're very unlucky."

Security Update 2010-007, offered on its own to Leopard users but combined with nonsecurity changes in Version 10.6.5 of Snow Leopard, boasted 46% more patches than the biggest to date.

But Apple's patch numbers were inflated by the fixes for a whopping 55 vulnerabilities in Adobe's Flash Player. Unlike other operating system vendors, Apple bundles Flash with its OS and maintains the popular -- and frequently flaw-filled -- media player using its own update mechanism.

Flash patches accounted for 41% of the total that Apple issued.

Unlike the last time when Apple patched Flash in Mac OS X, yesterday's update included all known Flash fixes, including 18 that Adobe shipped just last week.

In June, Adobe criticized Apple for not keeping users up to date. "10.6.4 update for Mac OS X includes Flash Player, but not the latest version," said Brad Arkin, Adobe's director of security and privacy, at the time.

Apple has now caught up by dumping patches into yesterday's update that Adobe released in four Flash security events between early June and early November. What's unclear is how long Apple will continue to provide Flash patches to its customers.

Three weeks ago, Apple confirmed that it was ditching Flash -- the new MacBook Air laptop it the company's first Flash-less system -- but did not say when it would stop fixing Adobe's flaws. Meanwhile, Adobe has promised to add auto-update notification that would tell Mac users when a new version of Flash is available, but it has declined to set a release date for the tool.

Apple and Adobe have been butting heads over Flash since 2007, but the dispute grew hot this year as the two companies traded blows over Flash content on Apple's iOS-powered devices, with CEO Steve Jobs trashing Flash in April and the co-chairs of Adobe's board of directors accusing Apple of undermining the Web in mid-May.

Of the 79 non-Flash patches in Wednesday's massive collection, 16 were related to X11, Apple's implementation of the Unix X Windows System; nine affected QuickTime, Apple's own media player; four were in OS X's ImageIO component; and another four resided in Apple Type Services (ATS), the operating system's font renderer.

Among the patched ATS bugs was one that was revealed publicly on Monday when Core Security Technologies warned Mac users that Apple had missed two earlier self-imposed deadlines to deliver a fix. The Core warning was notable because the bug -- which was present only in Mac OS X 10.5, or Leopard -- was a variation of one used last summer to "jailbreak" iPhones running iOS 4.

Three of the nine QuickTime vulnerabilities were reported to Apple by HP's TippingPoint, which runs a bug bounty program called Zero Day Initiative.

Another QuickTime flaw was submitted by Nils, a researcher who works at MWR InfoSecurity, a Basingstoke, England-based security consulting firm. Nils, who uses only his last name when he reports vulnerabilities, is best known for his work at Pwn2Own, an annual hacking contest held in Vancouver, British Columbia.

At the 2010 event, Nils sidestepped two major defensive technologies in Windows 7, DEP and ASLR, to exploit Mozilla's Firefox and walk away with a $10,000 cash prize. The year before, Nils grabbed $15,000 by exploiting not only Firefox, but also Safari and Internet Explorer 8.

Most of the flaws patched Wednesday were described with the standard Apple phrase "may lead to arbitrary code execution," which is the Cupertino, Calif.-based company's way of labeling a flaw as critical. Apple does not assign ratings or severity scores to bugs it patches, unlike other large software makers, such as Microsoft and Oracle.

Alongside the 134 patches, Apple tackled more than two-dozen nonsecurity issues, many of them stability or reliability problems.

Apple's practice is to divulge no details of such fixes; instead it offers only terse one-line descriptions. For example, it might say: "Addresses stability and performance of graphics applications and games," which could conceivably involve scores of changes at the heart of an operating system.

The 10.6.5 upgrade also fixed a problem with some HP printers connected to wireless networks, added support for encrypted transfers of files to Apple's online storage service, and improved the reliability of connections to Microsoft Exchange servers.

Considering the size of the upgrade -- between 240MB and 645MB for the client version of Mac OS X -- it's not surprising that reports of problems have trickled into Apple's support forum. Several users, for instance, said that they were unable to connect with 802.11n wireless networks after upgrading to 10.6.5.

The most serious problem, however, affected users of PGP's Whole Disk Encryption software: They reported that their Macs would not boot after the update, forcing them to restore from backups.

According to a message from PGP, users can safely apply the upgrade if they first decrypt the drive.

Mac OS X 10.6.4 and the 2010-007 security update can be downloaded at the Apple site or installed using the operating system's integrated update service.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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