15 easy fixes for Mac security risks

How safe is your Mac? Maybe not as safe as you think. Here are some quick ways to beef up its security.

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Use secure passwords

User passwords are one of the foundations of security. If you use a password that is simple or easy to guess, you're just asking for someone to break into your computer or user account.

Mac OS X includes a password assistant that automatically generates random passwords according a specified level of complexity; it also checks the complexity of passwords that you create. Make use of this feature whenever you need to generate a password -- for Web sites or other services as well as for your Mac OS X user account.

To get to the password assistant, go to the Accounts pane in System Preferences, select a user account, click the Change Password option, and then click the button with a key icon next to the New Password field.

password assistant

The password assistant can create secure passwords. Click to view larger image.

Even the most complex password can be cracked, however, so remember to change your password frequently. If you don't trust yourself to remember, try setting a monthly reminder in iCal.

Disable automatic log-in

As part of the Setup Assistant that runs when you install Mac OS X or start up a new Mac, Mac OS X enables automatic log-in for the first user account that you create -- which means you can log in without providing a username and password whenever you start up.

Disable automatic log-in

Disable automatic log-in.

Click to view larger image.

While automatic log-in is convenient, particularly if you're the only user of your Mac, it also means that anyone who has physical access to your Mac can simply restart it to gain full access to your account and your files. This is a particularly significant risk for Mac laptop users.

You can disable automatic log-in in the Accounts pane of System Preferences by clicking the Login Options button at the bottom of the user accounts list on the left. The automatic log-in option appears at the top of the area on the right; select Disabled from its pop-up menu.

Don't display usernames or password hints at log-in

By default, Mac OS X's log-in window displays a list of all users on a Mac (or all users who can access a Mac in a network). This makes it easier for anyone who has physical access to a Mac to gain access to it, since they need only guess a password. Disabling the display of users adds another layer of security because it requires that a malicious user know the username associated with an account.

Another simple act to help secure an account is to disable password hints (which Mac OS X will normally display to help you remember your password after three failed log-in attempts). This significantly undermines the security of using a password and should always be disabled.

Both of these options can be configured in the same Accounts pane where you disabled automatic log-in. To disable password hints, simply uncheck the box next to "Show password hints." To choose not to display usernames in the log-in window, select the "Name and password" radio button next to "Display log-in window as," which means users will have to type both a username and its password to log in.

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