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Kaspersky's right: Apple, lift your security game

Secrecy and denial are paths to failure

Kaspersky Lab chief and glorious global megatroll Eugene Kaspersky made headlines last month when he suggested that Apple is 10 years behind Microsoft when it comes to security. Cupertino's fanboys hated it. But he's right.

Apple's supposed invulnerability is a myth based on ancient history.

Back in 2001, Apple's new Unix-based OS X held clear security superiority over Microsoft's mess. It didn't take a genius to figure out that the well-tested, modular Unix security model was vastly better than the muddled application and system layers of Windows' desktop versions.

Windows' weaknesses were highlighted by a series of attacks including ILOVEYOU in May 2000, the Anna Kournikova virus in February 2001, and the Code Red worm in July 2001. On 18 November 2001, Nimda became the internet's most widespread malware in just 22 minutes.

Not exactly a good look.

Bill Gates agreed. On 15 January 2002 he sent his famous (at least in infosec circles) all-staff memo, Trustworthy Computing. Not "trusted" computing, but trustworthy. Worthy of trust.

"As an industry leader we can and must do better," Gates wrote.

"Our new design approaches need to dramatically reduce the number of such issues that come up in the software that Microsoft, its partners and its customers create. We need to make it automatic for customers to get the benefits of these fixes. Eventually, our software should be so fundamentally secure that customers never even worry about it."

Long story short, Microsoft completely re-engineered the way it developed software. The Security Development Lifecycle (SDL) methodology became the rule and, after years of work and the let-us-never-speak-of-it-again disaster of Windows Vista, it paid off.

Finding Windows a tougher target, the bad guys moved up the stack and attacked Adobe's Acrobat, Reader and Flash Player instead.

Microsoft publishes tools and even a simplified SDL to help anyone make their software more secure. The Microsoft Active Protections Program (MAPP) allows partners to share information about vulnerabilities — although recently one of those partners shared things a little too widely.

So what about Apple?

Well who knows? Everything is SEKRIT in the magical kingdom.

"For the protection of our customers, Apple does not disclose, discuss, or confirm security issues until a full investigation has occurred and any necessary patches or releases are available," says the Apple Product Security website.

Read that carefully. Apple does not even discuss an issue until they've patched it. Issues could exist, be known to Apple, and even be actively exploited — but they won't tell you. Not even a suggested workaround. Nothing must tarnish the image of invulnerability.

Apple still actively promotes that image. Even today, at least on Apple's Australian website, we're told that "a Mac isn't susceptible to the thousands of viruses plaguing Windows-based computers" — in the same way that a petunia isn't susceptible to smallpox — and that you're safe "without any work on your part".

That Java flaw that allowed Flashback to infect 600,000 Macs had been patched by Sun/Oracle in February. Apple's response seems tardy, to say the least — particularly when they seemed able to release the patch within hours once news of the infection broke. Well, they patched Snow Leopard and Lion. Is Leopard still vulnerable? Apple didn't say.

"Nearly every machine in our studio had the Flashback trojan. 7 out of 9 Macs," Sydney-based graphic designer Clinton Duncan tweeted this morning. "Very scary / bad IT guys."

Is Duncan's experience just the beginning? I suspect it is. Microsoft had to experience real grief before the company faced its problems and fixed them. Apple is still in denial.

Disclosure: Stilgherrian has travelled to US security events twice as Microsoft's guest, including a briefing on SDL. He uses a MacBook Pro and an Android phone, so go figure.

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Contact Stilgherrian at Stil@stilgherrian.com or follow him on Twitter at @stilgherrian

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