Steve Jobs And Tech Security

Apple's products continue to highlight what relatively secure operating system environments look like.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

October 6, 2011

4 Min Read

The death of Steve Jobs is triggering not a little reflection over the impact that one man could have over the form and function of the technology we use every day. The Apple II and Apple Macintosh were systems on which many of today's technology professionals first cut their teeth. In more recent years, the iPod, iPhone, and iPad came to reshape or outright define our notions of what constituted an MP3 player, smartphone, or tablet.

At least for the past 10 years, however, what's also been notable with Apple products is the degree to which their users don't have to worry about security. Not that Apple's operating systems are 100% secure; they're not. But with the large quantity of malware targeting Windows operating systems increasing this year by 21%, and the quantity of malware targeting Google's Android smartphone and tablet operating system increasing by 400%, Apple's products are notable for the exploits they're not experiencing.

Why don't Apple products experience the same levels of malware as Windows or Android, and how much of that can be traced to Jobs' legacy? The leading explanation has long been that attacking Apple desktops and laptops offers insufficient benefits to merit the time and cost required to develop the necessary malware. According to Net Applications, Windows controls 86% of the PC operating system market, while Apple accounts for only 6%, and Linux, 1%. Why attack Apple, when there are still so many people still using Windows XP?

Furthermore, the Windows security situation has created a vicious security circle. For example, one of the leading scams--free AV--doesn't even exploit Windows. Instead, it makes people think that their Windows systems have been compromised, getting them to pony up $49.95 for bogus antivirus software, or more for the equally bogus "premium edition." In other words, criminals are launching social engineering attacks predicated on the legacy of poor Windows security.

On the Apple front, Jobs notably chose to base the Apple OS X operating system, introduced for desktops in 2001, on Unix, which arguably made it more secure than its Windows rival. But Apple OS X isn't invulnerable--far from it. In fact, at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas this summer, security researchers demonstrated that Mac OS X was vulnerable to the advanced attacks plaguing such businesses as RSA. Still, few people--if any--appear to be launching such attacks against Apple users.

Another Jobs decision that's had strong security upsides has been Apple's walled-garden approach to distributing applications for its iOS (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad) devices. Namely, only applications from the Apple App Store can be installed on said devices (at least without jailbreaking them). But before developers can place their applications in the App Store, first they get vetted, and then each version of their application gets vetted, to ensure that it meets security standards, including doing what it says it does. The result has been a smartphone ecosystem in which users are at very low risk of being exploited via malicious applications.

Meanwhile, for users of Apple's biggest competitor, Android, instead of seeing a walled garden, it's arguably more of a jungle, as they can install any application from any source. Google also doesn't screen applications before offering them for sale. As a result, Trojan applications sometimes even end up in the official Android Market, requiring Google to expunge them, and occasionally even use its "kill switch" to remove especially malicious ones from devices.

Google makes the operating system, but doesn't control the Android smartphone ecosystem. Apple, of course, has taken the opposite approach, and it's notable that third parties are stepping forward to provide Android users with a more Apple-like application vetting and distribution system, such as the Amazon Appstore for Android. Of course, Apple and Google's respective approaches have their own pros, cons, and tradeoffs--not least of which is cost. But Apple iOS, for people willing to buy into its walled-garden approach, sees few exploits. Attackers seem to favor the anything-goes approach of Android, not least because it makes distributing malicious applications much easier.

How much of that iOS versus Android--or OS X versus Windows--security equation has had to do with Apple's design, ecosystem, market share, or luck? Regardless of the answer, as people celebrate what was Jobs' rare genius at bringing highly usable and desirable products to market, don't forget the security aspect of that equation, and the positive contribution to form and function offered by not having to deal with the latest malware outbreak or targeted exploit.

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About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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