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Expert: Mac Users Should Gird for Swell of Attacks

Rising popularity of Mac OS X, and of application-layer exploits may end Mac OS's security honeymoon, expert says

Mac users traditionally haven't had to worry much about incident response and forensics. But that is changing fast, with a rise in larger-scale Mac OS X buys and a surge in application-based exploits that span Mac OS X and Windows platforms, according to an incident response expert.

Wendi Whitmore -- a principal consultant with Mandiant who has worked on attack response cases with enterprises, the U.S. Department of Defense, federal law enforcement agencies, and the intelligence community -- says Mac attacks will increase, and it's time for Mac OS X users to be prepared.

"We're going to start seeing a lot more Mac incidents," says Whitmore. "There's this kind of false sense of security that Macs don't get attacked."

Whitmore says with more enterprises and government entities making larger Mac OS X buys, the platform is naturally becoming a more attractive target. "The more of them that are out there, the more the opportunity for attack," she says.

The other red flag is the increasing number of application-based threats that span both Windows and Mac OS X, such as the wave of QuickTime vulnerabilities that have been found and exploited over the past few months, she says. "These are going to be exploitable, regardless of which OS they're on," she says.

Whitmore says she and her colleagues are seeing Macs exploited via Web applications, many of which hit Windows and Mac OS X boxes. "We've recently seen a lot of drive-by attacks, where a user visits seemingly legitimate Websites" that redirect them to a malware-ridden site without their knowledge, she says. These are large news Websites and "mainstream" e-commerce sites, she says.

Aside from the Web app attacks that target browser vulnerabilities, Mac OS X-based Web servers are also getting attacked, typically via automated vulnerability scans looking for weaknesses, she says.

Whitmore, who gave a presentation today on Mac OS X incident response at the DOD's Cyber Crime Conference in St. Louis, says Mac users need to collect so-called "volatile" data and analyze how it fits into the overall attack picture. "Once you've collected that information, you have to start analyzing it to get indicators of whether the compromise was host- or network-based."

Clues can be gleaned from information in filenames or flash files, which allows you to search other hosts for other compromised systems, she says. Check memory processes, network connections, running processes, and open files, for instance. Consult system logs. (These these steps, of course, aren't unique to Mac OS X, Whitmore says.)

It's not that attackers are necessarily always targeting a Mac box when it gets hit: In one Web server attack, for instance, Whitmore says she and other investigators found the attacker was just looking for application vulnerabilities to exploit, not specifically a Mac server. "We were able prove the attacker didn't even know this was a Mac server or OS when he compromised it," she says.

One problem in some organizations with a mix of OSes is that their systems administrators and other IT people may not be as well-versed in Mac OS X, so not all of their organizations' policies get applied to the boxes, Whitmore notes. "You should apply the same password and admin policies to Mac OS 10 as you do to Windows."

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    Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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