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Hackers Learn To 'Think Different'

By Gene J. Koprowski MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Apr 20, 2005 5:00 AM PT

Hackers are learning to "think different," so to speak, and now might be targeting Macintosh computers. Long-thought to be impervious to viruses, malware and computer vandals, Apple's Mac OS X is an increasingly succulent target, experts say.

Hackers Learn To 'Think Different'

"Macintoshes are not impervious," said Corbett Consolvo, chief information security officer at the College of Charleston, in Charleston, S.C. "As they are now based on a more common operating system, they have become more susceptible to hacks and malware. Their reputation continues to be that they are impenetrable, however."

37 Critical Vulnerabilities

A study recently released by Symantec, "The Internet Security Threat Report," indicates that attacks on Macs are likely to begin and increase in the future, as overall attacks from the Internet on private networks grow, too. "Attackers are launching increasingly sophisticated attacks in an effort to compromise the integrity of corporate and personal information," said Arthur Wong, vice president of Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec.

The study showed that last year, researchers found some 37 critical vulnerabilities on the Mac operating system, for which Apple is now issuing monthly security updates.

"The appearance of a root-kit [a hacker security tool] called Opener in October of 2004 serves to illustrate the growth in vulnerability research on the OS X platform," the Symantec study said. "Multiple remote and local vulnerabilities have been disclosed that affect both the server and desktop versions of OS X. Vulnerabilities in the Apple windowing system and development kit and in the Apple default Apache configurations are two of the vulnerabilities ... for which Apple released patches."

Another way hackers could get into Macs is through newly discovered vulnerabilities in Mozilla browsers, which are very popular with Macintosh users. During the last half of 2004, researchers discovered 21 vulnerabilities in Mozilla, contrasted with 13 in Microsoft's Internet Explorer, the Symantec study said.

Criminal Venture

A separate study points out that hacking is evolving from a mischievous hobby into a full-time criminal venture, meaning that Apple will no longer get a pass because it is perceived among many in the computing community as a white hat company, battling Microsoft on behalf of the rest of us. The study, by Aladdin Knowledge Systems, found that 70 percent of virus writers work under contract for organized crime syndicates.

"I expect to see more and more attempts against Macintoshes as time goes on and hackers have more time to learn the ins and outs of the new operating system," Consolvo said.

During the last few years, as the number of Microsoft security patches issued on the infamous "Patch Tuesday" every month continued to proliferate, there was a belief among many Mac users that they could turn to Apple for a reprieve from their network security problems. "Enterprise organizations and home computer users turned to Mac systems for relief," a spokeswoman for the Reston, Va.-based Cyber Security Industry Alliance said.

Experts say that the focus on security hardware and software might not be what is needed to stop hacker attacks. Too often, companies spend millions of dollars on virtual private networks, firewalls and antivirus software and intrusion detection systems. "The real security culprits, common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVEs), are largely going undetected and uncorrected," said a spokeswoman for North Chelmsford, Mass.-based PredatorWatch, a network security firm.

These kinds of vulnerabilities appear in both Macs and Windows PCs. "CVEs are holes in applications that can be attacked by hackers and cyber terrorists to either steal information or bring down networks," the PredatorWatch spokeswoman said. "CVEs are the cause of over 90 percent of all security breaches."

The rise of CVEs has pushed the cost of the hacking problem, overall, for corporate America, to US$100 billion last year, according to the CERT & Mi2g Intelligence unit.

The vulnerabilities in Macs could be exploited just as are the problems with Unix systems or Windows-based systems, experts said. According to the Symantec report, as the popularity of the new Mac operating system continues to grow, so will the hacker attacks.

Unimaginable Problems

Meanwhile, Apple recently released a low-cost version of its computer, without a monitor or a keyboard, for about $500. "Having your products in more hands can definitely uncover problems you never imagined," Razorpoint Security President Gary Morse said.

The common vulnerabilities include programming flaws, or holes, that malicious hackers manipulate to steal, or modify information from a computer.

Users -- even those new to Macintosh, like the purchasers of the new low-cost Mac mini -- can protect themselves in a number of ways, experts said. By keeping the operating system, and the browser, up to date, problems with hackers will be minimized. "Antivirus protection for Macs is available, too, from a few vendors, including Norton and Sophos," Ted Demopoulos, an IT consultant and president of Demopoulos Associates, said.

However, Morse, who has consulted on computer security for 15 years, cautioned that a number of security solutions needs to be implemented before one can consider their Mac secure today. "It should be noted that any recommendations regarding security should be implemented as part of a cohesive, well-established policy and process," Morse said. "Merely making a technology choice, or clicking a check box, does not by itself make for sound, robust security. Security is a process, not a product."

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