Just how snoop-proof is your Mac?

Reader Evan Katz wonders just how safe the data on his Mac is. He writes:

If my computer is lost or stolen--or a person in my office or home just wants to do some digging--can someone log in using their user name (or pull the hard drive and mount it on another Mac) and somehow read my contacts, calendar and email messages by scanning my hard drive?

I'm not sharing any deep dark secrets by telling you that this can be easily done. If someone has physical access to your computer and its hard drive (and time to carry out their nefarious snooping) it's all over. They can simply mount your computer's hard drive as an external storage device, log into their computer with a root account, and then rummage freely through your stuff. Any normal protections that were in place will be defeated by their root powers.

Fortunately Apple provides a way to protect your data in the form of FileVault (which you'll find in the the Security & Privacy system preference in Mountain Lion). When you enable FileVault, your Mac's disk is encrypted. If you have multiple accounts on your Mac, you'll be asked which will be allowed to unlock the drive. This is helpful when Tom, Dick, and Mary all have user accounts on a particular Mac, but you wish to trust only Mary with this kind of access.

Once you've approved the accounts, you'll be provided with a recovery key that contains a long string of characters. This is for cases where you've forgotten the password for an account that's authorized to unlock your drive. You can choose to store this key with Apple, so that you can later recover it after answering security questions. Should you have neither the password or recovery key, you're hosed--you can't unlock the drive. Normally it takes a few hours to encrypt a drive.

Of course the weakest link in the chain remains the person sitting in front of the computer. If you leave your Mac on and logged in and then step away from it, another person could sidle in and rifle through your stuff. A weak password could be likewise disastrous. And slapping a sticky note that contains your recovery key to your Mac's monitor is just inviting trouble.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags OS X Mountain LionApplesecurity

More about Apple

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Christopher Breen

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts