Making sense of the Snow Leopard security debate

Malware protection features are at the centre of discussions

Snow Leopard is out and users seem generally satisfied with the latest version of the Mac OS X operating system. The release hasn't been without some controversy though, part of which has been the debate over the malware protection features Apple included in Snow Leopard.

The bottom line is that both sides of the debate are correct to some extent. The fact is that there are hundreds of thousands of threats and exploits circulating in the wild that target Windows and only a couple for the Mac. The threats that do exist for the Mac are almost more proof-of-concept just to show it can be done than actual attacks.

That doesn't mean there is no reason to be concerned though. Apple is not perfect and the Mac operating system is not impervious. Charlie Miller owned a Macbook in a matter of minutes to claim the Pwn20wn contest prize at the Cansec West conference earlier this year. Granted, he exploited a flaw in the Safari web browser to accomplish the goal, but the bottom line is that there was nothing within the Mac operating system that prevented him from doing so.

Without even starting a debate about whether Mac OS X is more or less than secure than Windows, lets just agree that it is not 100 per cent secure. That is all that is relevant to the debate about whether or not Snow Leopard needs malware protection.

Apple Mac OS X users are very proud of the perceived security of their operating system and they're not shy about letting others know. Don't believe me? Just bring up any comparison of the Mac and Windows operating systems and count the seconds before someone points out the millions of viruses that plague Windows as some sort of validation that the Mac operating system is just inherently more secure.

The other prevailing point of view though is that the lack of attacks against Mac OS X systems is a function of market share more than the security of the operating system code. In other words, the debate over which operating system is more secure is rendered irrelevant by the fact that the Mac operating system doesn't have enough market share to be worth attacking. Essentially, there haven't been enough Mac systems for the criminal underground to justify the business case and maximize the return on investment for dedicating time and effort to exploit it.

But, that is changing. Apple has a strong, loyal...and growing audience. Mac OS X will not dominate the enterprise desktop anytime soon, but is steadily scratching away at the desktop OS market share. It has captured the hearts of consumers and is slowly becoming a viable system for business use as well.

So, yes- its true that there are infinitely more threats targeted at Windows systems than Macs, but no- it is not because (at least not entirely- remember, not trying to flame an irrelevant debate here) the Mac is impervious to attack.

Increased market share will draw the attention of the Internet criminal underground at some point. If Apple and/or malware vendors don't begin to address the issue proactively, Mac users will get caught with their proverbial pants down when an attacker does decide to take aim at the Mac OS X platform.

It is a good thing that Apple has recognized, no matter how tacitly, that malware is an issue that needs to be addressed. The malware protection included with Snow Leopard offers little in the way of protection though and has rankled security vendors like McAfee and Symantec.

I think at this point all parties agree that the bullseye on Apple's back is getting bigger and that there is a growing need for malware protection of some sort. The question of whether Apple's efforts are worthwhile, or whether Apple or third-party security vendors are better equipped to handle the issue will play out over time. Regardless of how the malware protection is done and who provides it, the Mac OS X operating system has been successful enough in claiming market share that users need to start being more paranoid about securing it.

Tony Bradley is an information security and unified communications expert with more than a decade of enterprise IT experience. He tweets as @PCSecurityNews and provides tips, advice and reviews on information security and unified communications technologies on his site at

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