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Perimeter

8/31/2009
08:30 AM
Rob Enderle
Rob Enderle
Commentary
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Snow Leopard's Toothless Trojan Defense

Snow Leopard is the strongest business offering that Apple has ever fielded, but Apple remains in the dark ages when it comes to protection against malware and its unwillingness to work with third-party vendors to minimize the risk of bringing an Apple machine into a large business.

Snow Leopard is the strongest business offering that Apple has ever fielded, but Apple remains in the dark ages when it comes to protection against malware and its unwillingness to work with third-party vendors to minimize the risk of bringing an Apple machine into a large business.I've been suggesting that Apple's approach to security is as bad as Microsoft's was in the 1990s, but I was wrong because Microsoft at least worked with antivirus vendors to bridge the gap. Even so, the result was unacceptable and forced Microsoft to fix Windows 2000 and eventually launch a crippled Vista.

Whenever a vendor covers a known critical problem and hampers others from fixing the issue, the vendor not only runs the risk of being called negligent (with some rather severe financial risks), but it also faces the potential of massive failures as a result of that negligence. That, in turn, can lead to loss of customer trust. Microsoft's history proves that.

Until now, Apple didn't acknowledge a failure and likely could use the tobacco companies' defense of no-knowledge (which didn't hold up once internal documents were brought into evidence). But once the company provides an anti-malware (anti-Trojan) tool, it can no longer plead ignorance. This new feature proves it knows there is a threat, and Apple now can be challenged on how it is providing this protection.

In a world where aggressive anti-malware products have been relatively unsuccessful against polymorphic attacks, Apple's solution should have approached the industry norm of relying on a heuristic tool to identify hostile behavior. Polymorphic malware changes as it spreads, making it nearly impossible for a script-based tool to have much real impact, even if it had a massive script library that included logical variants.

What Apple delivered with Snow Leopard is a script-based tool that identifies -- but does not remove -- a few of the Trojans currently spreading on Macs. No heuristics -- just three scripts. This is like sending a soldier into battle with a bulletproof vest that only protects against lead bullets, and broadcasting, "We have bulletproof vests that only work with lead bullets!"

I'm not sure I can argue that this is better than nothing because the effort showcases the vulnerability without adequately mitigating it. In fact, you wouldn't even need a polymorphic attack: You could either slightly alter the virus or deliver it packed, where the lead element either deleted the script or disabled the anti-Trojan tool.

This may be Steve Jobs' reality distortion field working against him again. Apple's campaign against Windows Vista -- and soon Windows 7 -- is largely based on the premise that the Apple platform isn't just less vulnerable to malware, but that it is invulnerable. Jobs knows that arguing you break less often is far less powerful than saying you don't break at all, and this second message is what Apple is aggressively and successfully promoting.

But there is no such thing as an invulnerable product, and much of the perception that Apple is trying to maintain is based on the lack of visible attacks on Apple platform products. The majority of the market remains Windows, which makes the Mac a lower-value target.

Maintaining the impression of a less vulnerable product isn't that hard since Apple historically has actually had a less vulnerable offering. But after the recent Black Hat conference findings, the Mac OS is clearly not invulnerable.

So Apple had to do something, and it appears its executives (read: Steve Jobs) believed if they delivered a rudimentary tool, then they could showcase there is little need to take the threat seriously because they aren't. As a trusted vendor, they are spending trust to maintain the impression that the Mac is invulnerable.

In most known cases, the way malware generally spreads on the Mac is by tricking users to install the hostile code on their machines. This suggests the strongest defense is likely education, coupled with traffic monitoring in case someone still installs the malware, as well as email file-blocking for file types that could be carriers for these Trojans.

Given Apple's posture, putting additional anti-malware products on its Macs will not have the intended results. Even on Windows machines, where the threat is widely known, users turn their anti-malware software off. It's likely a Mac user who was led to believe he doesn't need it in the first place would turn the tool off in his machine, too.

This suggests a change in posture for how we think of PCs of any flavor. We typically assume they are not infected, but perhaps we should instead assume they are infected and apply external technologies to quarantine and assure they are clean -- using strong NAP (network apccess Protection) or NAC (network access control) at the core of the solution.

Wouldn't it be ironic if most ended up using Microsoft's NAP to keep Macs from spreading malware?

-- Rob Enderle is president and founder of Enderle Group. Special to Dark Reading.

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