Musings on Mac Malware

Apple Store, Fifth Avenue

Apple: under attack day and night


Over the past couple of weeks, OxCERT have been somewhat overwhelmed by Mac malware. This isn’t quite the first time we’ve dealt with problems on Macs – we’ve seen several compromised over the years through weak or exposed ssh credentials, and others infected as a result of installing pirated software. But with Flashback, the game has changed forever. We are seeing huge numbers of attacks of the sort that Windows users have had to contend with for years. Apple users, and indeed Apple themselves, just have not been ready. We are dealing with what is probably the biggest outbreak since Blaster struck the Windows world all the way back in the summer of 2003. That time OxCERT dealt with around 1000 incidents; we have seen several hundred Flashback incidents and they keep on coming.

What is Flashback?

Flashback is not in fact that new, it has been around in various forms since September 2011. Like much malware, multiple variants exist, as the attacks evolve to exploit new vulnerabilities, avoid detection and adapt to new purposes. Early versions required user interaction in order to execute, but in recent weeks the malware has been exploiting a vulnerability in Java, allowing for “drive-by” exploits where all a user has to do is to visit a webpage hosting malicious content (perhaps via a third-party advertisement).

Once on the system, Flashback gives the attackers the ability to do pretty much whatever they like with it, at least until someone stops them; it will depend on the particular variant and what the command-and-control systems tell it. In the Windows world, a common approach has been to capture users’ keystrokes and other information from the system in order to gain access to their online banking. Others may be interested in what other resources they can access, whether on the compromised system itself, or via resources to which the user has access. Some University users have access to some very sensitive data.

The Java vulnerability is one that Oracle fixed on 14 February. Anyone using Oracle’s auto-update mechanisms would have received this update shortly after, but under OS X, Java is distributed by Apple and most users have to wait for Apple to release the update. In this case, Apple did not release it until 3 April, some seven weeks later, by which time the vulnerability was being widely exploited. The reason behind this delay is unclear, but it is not a one-off: Apple have consistently lagged weeks behind Oracle on Java updates. For all we know there may be good operational reasons as to why it takes so long for Apple to release the updates, but as is usual they have been completely silent on the matter.

Java is not the only application being exploited – there are reports of others being targetted, such as emails containing malicious Word attachments. All too familiar in the Windows world of course.

“But Macs don’t get viruses!”

Sadly far too many users still appear to be under the misapprehension that “Macs don’t get viruses” in spite of decades of evidence to the contrary. Indeed, at the time of writing, Apple themselves still state that a Mac “doesn’t get PC viruses”. Technically true, perhaps, but very misleading: PCs get PC viruses, Macs get Mac viruses which may be extremely similar to that common on PCs, in spite of the “built-in defences”. (Note also the claim that “Apple responds quickly by providing software updates and security enhancements” – as we’ve seen, this depends very much on your definition of “quickly”.)

There was perhaps a time when the threat of viruses was sufficiently low that Mac users didn’t have to worry too much about having antivirus software installed, but that time is long gone. Apple’s “built-in defences” weren’t saving users from Flashback infections. It’s true recent versions OS X have a built-in antimalware capability, but it is extremely limited and no substitute for a proper third-party antivirus system. Sophos is widely used and supported in the University but no doubt most of the major players have equally good solutions.

What should Mac users do to protect themselves?

Really, it’s a case of taking the same precautions are required as on a Windows system.

  • Install antivirus, and ensure it updates frequently, preferably several times a day.
  • Keep the operating system up-to-date (but see below) – ensure Software Update checks on a daily basis, and that security-related updates are applied promptly.
  • Keep third-party applications up-to-date, especially anything that may handle untrusted data from the Internet. Browsers (eg Firefox, Chrome, Opera), mail clients (eg Thunderbird, Outlook), Flash, Java, Acrobat, Office.
  • Be wary. Don’t open email attachments you don’t expect, especially if from unknown senders. Only download software from trusted sources.
  • Enable the built-in firewall.
  • Disable or remove software you don’t use. Under OS X 10.7 (Lion), Apple now do this automatically with Java.

There is however a nasty catch with operating system updates, of which many users will be unaware: Apple security support lifetimes are much shorter than in the Windows world. This is an issue which we discuss further in a second post.

Ultimately though, the game has changed for Mac users. They can no longer sit smugly thinking that few people are going to bother attacking them – Macs are being attacked on a very significant scale, and complacency is asking for trouble. Mac malware has gone mainstream, and will likely remain so.

Posted in Apple, General Security | 10 Comments

10 Responses to “Musings on Mac Malware”

  1. [...] In a companion article I discuss Mac malware, and how this has recently become much more of a problem than has previously been the case. As well as Apple’s apparently slow response to a recent vulnerability, and general air of secrecy, one of the problems that the attacks have highlighted is Apple’s product support lifecycles, which are much shorter than in the Windows world. Many users are unaware of the issues and will not realise that their systems may be insecure as a result. [...]

  2. [...] why it was refreshing to see a recent blog post from the network security team (OxCERT) at the University of Oxford, which offered some insights into its experience with a large population of [...]

  3. [...] Oxford University Computing Services’ network security team (aka OxCERT) has written that they dealt "with what is probably the biggest outbreak since Blaster struck the Windows world all the way back i…." [...]

  4. [...] Oxford University Computing Services’ network security team (aka OxCERT) has written that they dealt “with what is probably the biggest outbreak since Blaster struck the Windows world all the way back i….” [...]

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  7. [...] Oxford University’s OxCERT talks about Flashback - OxCERT [...]

  8. [...] malware. The problem has become so severe, that the IT department at Oxford university has become overwhelmed trying to manage all the outbreaks. These viruses can steal passwords, bank information, and other important information and can [...]

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  10. [...] every year. Any software on any platform is potentially a target – whether it be Windows, Apple OSX, or [...]