SANS notes sharp increase in Mac OS X flaws

Just because you use a Macintosh, don’t think you’re any more secure than a Wintel user.

A sharp increase in the number of flaws being discovered in Mac OS X suggests that the Apple operating system may soon be every bit as prone to malicious attacks as Windows systems, according to a report from the SANS Institute, a Bethesda, Md.-based security training and research firm.

Mac OS X still remains safer than Windows because its relatively small installed base is a less attractive target for malicious hackers than Windows systems. But the number of flaws being discovered in the operating system is leaving its reputation as a secure alternative to Windows “in tatters,” according to the semiannual update to the SANS Top 20 list of Internet vulnerabilities.

“Users often feel invincible when they have their shiny silver-colored Apple and they are surfing the Web with it,” said Ed Skodis, a director at SANS. That may be a mistake, he said, because “there’s a significant amount of research going on for security vulnerabilities in the Mac OS.”

About 52 vulnerabilities were discovered in Mac OS X in 2005; 17 have been uncovered so far this year, said Amol Sarwate, manager of the vulnerability management lab at Qualys Inc., a Redwood Shores, Calif.-based security service provider.

The number of vulnerabilities reported last year was more than twice the number from 2004, when 24 flaws were discovered, Sarwate said. Out the flaws uncovered last year and so far in 2006, at least a third were considered critical, Sarwate said. During the past few months, users of Apple’s Safari Web browser also faced their first zero-day attack, which is an attack targeted at unpatched vulnerabilities.

Apple’s increasing market share and the company’s recent decision to build its systems around Intel Corp. chips have drawn increased hacker attention to its system, Skodis said. Similarly, Apple’s recent introduction of Boot Camp, which allows Intel-based Macs to run Windows XP, has also raised its risk profile, Skodis said. Though Windows XP runs in a separate partition on the Mac hard drive, it’s only a matter of time before malicious code becomes available that is capable of jumping over the two partitions on the hard drive, Skodis said. “It wouldn’t be hard to do,” he said.

At the same time, there appears to be a significant decline in vulnerabilities being reported in Windows services such as Internet Information Server, mail services and NetBIOS, Sarwate said. But that decline has been offset by a sharp increase in client-side flaws, including the Windows Metafile flaw (WMF) and Internet Explorer (IE) vulnerabilities, Sarwate said.

In fact, the emergence of several zero-days flaws in IE — including one that is currently unpatched — poses a major security risk for Windows users, said Rohit Dhamankar, manager of security research at the TippingPoint division of 3Com Corp.

Increasingly, zero-day flaws on Microsoft Corp. client systems are being used to install adware, spyware and other kinds of malicious code on end-user systems, he said. As a result, he said it may be time to rename IE “to ‘Internet Exploiter,’ because the chances of you being exploited using IE are much higher” these days, said Dhamanker, who is also the editor of the SANS Top 20 report.

The SANS study also showed that while Firefox continues to be a somewhat safer Web browser than IE, it is no panacea. According to SANS, users of Firefox and Mozilla have had to patch 11 vulnerabilities that can be exploited by a malicious Web page to run code over the past six months, in addition to several other critical vulnerabilities.

The SANS report also found an increase in vulnerabilities allowing direct access to databases, data warehouses and backup data, especially software from Oracle Corp. And SANS found a continuing increase in file-based attacks, particularly those using media and image files, such as the WMF. “In addition, we have seen a major upsurge in attacks using flaws in programs that process media files, such as Apple QuickTime/iTunes, Windows Media Player, RealNetworks RealPlayer, Macromedia Flash Player and Nullsoft Winamp,” the report said.

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