Apple missed security boat with Snow Leopard, says researcher

Wasted opportunity to really lock down the OS, argues Mac hacking expert Charlie Miller

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How Apple's rewrite of QuickTime for Snow Leopard plays out, of course, is uncertain, but Miller was optimistic. An exploit of a vulnerability in Leopard's QuickTime that he had been saving doesn't work in the version included with Snow Leopard, Miller acknowledged.

"They've shaken out hundreds of bugs in QuickTime over the years, but it was still really smart of them to rewrite it," said Miller. If it was up to him, though, Miller would do even more. "I'd reduce the number of file formats from 200 or so to 50, and reduce the attack surface. I don't think anyone would miss them."

Snow Leopard's other major security improvement was in DEP, which Miller said has been significantly enhanced. DEP is designed to stop some kinds of exploits -- buffer overflow attacks, primarily -- by blocking code from executing in memory that's supposed to contain only data. Microsoft introduced DEP in Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), and expanded it for Vista and the upcoming Windows 7.

Put ASLR and DEP in an operating system, Miller argued, and it's much more difficult for hackers to create working attack code. "If you don't have either, or just one of the two [ASLR or DEP], you can still exploit bugs, but with both, it's much, much harder."

Because Snow Leopard lacks fully-functional ASLR, Macs are still easier to compromise than Windows Vista systems, Miller said. "Snow Leopard's more secure than Leopard, but it's not as secure as Vista or Windows 7," he said. "When Apple has both [in place], that's when I'll stop complaining about Apple's security."

In the end, though, hacker disinterest in Mac OS X has more to do with numbers, as in market share, than in what protective measure Apple adds to the OS. "It's harder to write exploits for Windows than the Mac," Miller said, "but all you see are Windows exploits. That's because if [the hacker] can hit 90% of the machines out there, that's all he's gonna do. It's not worth him nearly doubling his work just to get that last 10%."

Mac users have long relied on that "security-through-obscurity" model to evade attack, and it's still working. "I still think you're pretty safe [on a Mac]," Miller said. "I wouldn't recommend antivirus on the Mac."

But the missed opportunity continues to bother him. "ASLR and DEP are very important," Miller said. "I just don't understand why they didn't do ASLR right," especially, he added, since Apple touted Snow Leopard as a performance and reliability update to Leopard.

"If someone else is running your machine, it's more unreliable than if you're running it," Miller concluded.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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