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Online Threats: Are Macs Really Safer Than PCs?


 
Macintosh computers are safe from online threats, right? Well, not exactly.

In a competition that ran in late March 2008 called "Pwn2Own" hackers were invited to pit their skills against fully-patched versions of Windows Vista, OSX Leopard and Linux. The hacker who managed to breach the security remotely, i.e. not sat in front of the machine, but via Internet access, won the computer they had hacked.
 
Sadly, the brand new Macbook-Air was the first to be overcome, winning the man behind the exploit not only the laptop, but a $10,000 prize. It took less than 48 hours for the hack to be devised, and less than two minutes from activation to infection.
 
Malware such as viruses, spyware and other malicious programs are normally aimed at Microsoft based operating systems because of their popularity. However, as the number of people choosing to buy Macintosh computers increases, so does the profit to be made from exploiting security weaknesses in the Mac operating system and associated web-based programs such as Safari and Mail.
With the release of MAC OS X the market share of Macintosh has risen from approximately 10% to more than 50%. It has gone from being a minor alternative to Windows to a major competitor, and, as a result, is a far more tempting target for hackers.
 
Many antivirus software companies, such as Symantec, offer products specifically designed to help improve the security of your Macintosh computer, and protect you and your data from online threats. They are constantly monitoring active malware issues and working to develop programs that remove the vulnerabilities from your system as they are found and exploited, leaving you exposed for the minimum amount of time possible.
Any computer that is connected to the Internet is at risk from infection from online threats, and the Mac system is no exception. Even before the Macintosh experienced a surge in popularity, viruses such as Miranda were exploiting vulnerabilities in Mac 6 and 7, often associated with Microsoft based products such as Outlook Express.
 
Melissa is a virus that is contained within an email attachment, and initially behaves like a worm, copying and sending itself to contacts in Microsoft Outlook as a Word attachment. However, Melissa does go on to infect other Word files, and can compromise the security of your machine by distributing your personal documents.
 
This is just one example of the vulnerabilities in earlier versions of the Macintosh operating system. As the company has developed both its hardware and software, a more secure and comprehensive operating platform has been developed. However, Mac OSX (Mac 10) is still far from invulnerable, and many proof of concept exploits have been developed to demonstrate this fact.
 
In February 2006 the first two viruses that affected MAC OSX was discovered.
 
OSX/Leap-A exploits the iChat instant messaging system. Behaving like a worm it copies itself to all the contacts on the infected users buddy list, therefore spreading itself to more machines.
OSX/Inqtana-A exploits a vulnerability in the Bluetooth service. Acting in the same was as Leap-A it spreads itself to other Mac users via this exploit.
 
While neither of these viruses have particularly destructive results, they were the first step to showing that the new Mac operating system was not as immune to attacks as most users were lead to believe.
Mac OSX Panther, released in 2003, has also been targeted and various vulnerabilities have been brought to light, such as the ID3 tag exploit that occurs when opening an MP3 in "Finder". The peer-to-peer file sharing system was also shown to be a prime target for hackers wishing to spread Trojans and other malware through Mac systems.
 
Again, many of these have been proof of concept attacks, designed more to show that it can be done, rather than seriously damage users machines. However, with hackers targeting Mac machines more and more it was only a matter of time before a more serious threat emerged.
 
Since the release of Panther at least three URI handler vulnerabilities have been discovered. Unlike the other, more passive, viruses mentioned above, these exploits allow code to be activated on a Mac remotely, meaning that hackers can insert small programs onto your Macintosh to create large amounts of damage and retrieve your data for their own use.
 
While it was safe to say, at one point, that Macs were far less at risk from online attacks that their Windows operating counterparts, the increased popularity of the Mac has made it a target for hackers. Increased compatibility between Microsoft products and Macintosh systems also enables vulnerabilities in the Microsoft code to be exploited, leaving your Mac far from safe.