Macs And Security: Has Apple Done A Good Enough Job?

Posted: November 21, 2013 in Articles
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Anti-virus for MacThe inquisitive minds must be wondering just how safe are Macs from malware such as viruses and stealth keyloggers.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say that Macs are way more secure than Windows, I’d have made it into Forbe’s list of richest people in the world a long time ago. Yes, Apple’s line of computers and laptops are less prone to getting compromised, but the tendency to do so is very much there. Even at this very moment, Mac users in Tibet are reportedly vulnerable to a malware that can possibly spy on their systems. Even though the threat is currently limited to frequent users of an anti-China website, it is a reminder of the fact that OS X is not infallible.

The inquisitive minds must be wondering just how safe are Macs from malware such as viruses and stealth keyloggers. In order to find an answer to this million-dollar question, there are a number of factors and features that must be explored.

Safe for now, but definitely not secure

Cybercriminals tend to fish in water that has more fish. With Windows having a far bigger user base than Macs, cybercriminals have traditionally focused on Microsoft’s operating system. OS X vulnerabilities have been exploited, though not that frequently. This, however, may change with Microsoft having released Windows 8, which is considered to be the securest Windows to date (and also because OS X’s security vulnerabilities are still unknown to a large extent).

Complicating things for keyloggers

Keyloggers work by intercepting the keyboard and recording the keys pressed by the user. To keep Mac users safe from such vulnerability, Apple has incorporated an anti-keylogging feature in OS X 5 (Leopard) onwards that limits keyboard interception to root users only. This in theory makes any application that uses EnableSecureEventinput immune to keyloggers, but since not every application makes use of this functionality, the system is not completely safe from the Mac keylogger software.

A new guard is on duty

The Gatekeeper feature, latest anti-malware feature in OS X, protects the system by controlling where the applications can be downloaded from and what applications can be launched on the system. In theory, this mitigates the threat of inadvertently downloading and launching suspicious applications.

The sandboxing effect

OS X security gets a huge boost from the App Sandbox, which can be thought of as a huge wall built separately around every app in the Mac. It isolates apps from critical system components and ensures that they only do what they are intended to do. Even if a malware makes its way into the system, its activities and impact remains restricted due to sandboxing.

Turning to a trusted friend for help

Encryption is an integral part of security. Apple is clearly aware of this, which is why it has integrated FileVault 2 in OS X. Securing the data through encryption, the program significantly reduces the risk of hackers accessing and interpreting the data on a Mac machine.

Outsmarting a cunning foe

Being aware of how malware tries to trick the system into treating data the same way as programs, it has included the XD (execute disable) feature in OS X Mountain Lion to keep the memory used for data and executable instructions separate at processor level. This makes it difficult for malware to make changes to applications and make them do something that they were not intended to.

Judging by the various features that Apple has integrated in OS X, especially Mountain Lion, it appears that Macs have a pretty robust defense in place. However, the fact remains that the security of Mac machines has been comprised in the past and are still very much vulnerably to cyber threats. The extent of the vulnerability is not yet known as cyber criminals seem to be more focused on Windows users, but once and if there is a shift in their focus, Mac users may be in for a surprise.

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