Mac Skeptic: Are Hackers Now Gunning for the Mac?

In early October Apple released a small series of patches for Mac OS X version 10.2 and later. Most of the fixes in this group blocked possible denial-of-service problems that are, to date, theoretical. For example, one addresses vulnerability in a Unix printing system that might expose passwords to hackers, in uncommon situations.

In the Windows world, no sooner is an OS hole publicized than someone writes a hack to exploit it. Since the last Mac OS X security update was the third in a month, and because some of the holes looked ripe for exploiting, I have to wonder whether the Mac is now attracting more unwanted attention from hackers.

According to Tim Bajarin, principal analyst with research firm Creative Strategies and a longtime Apple watcher, "The vulnerabilities unfortunately are inherent in the Unix world, and Apple's choice to build OS X on a Unix foundation brings with it this risk. Apple's move is more proactive: They are constantly testing the OS to catch any potential security holes before they become an issue. In that sense, they have gone to school on Microsoft's problems in this space and are making sure they leave no stone unturned in their quest to keep the OS as secure as possible."

"At the same time," Bajarin continues, "the media attention about Apple's OS being secure has clearly tweaked the interest of hackers, but as of now we have not seen any serious effort by the hacking community to deliberately expose any holes or attack the OS."

John Gruber, author of the Weblog Daring Fireball and another savvy Mac observer, thinks the recent spate of updates is just a small, short-term uptick, and doesn't indicate that the Mac is losing the high ground in the war against viruses, worms, and Trojan horses. On the Mac's reputation for being more secure than Windows, he says, "It's important to note that Macs tend not to get attacked, not that they can't be attacked. The vast majority of the fixes in Mac OS X security updates are in response to potential exploits, not actual exploits."

"And many of the fixes in typical Mac OS X security updates aren't Mac-specific," Gruber says, "but rather are updates to open-source components and tools. Apple has been diligent with regard to keeping Mac OS X's Unix layer up-to-date."

My take? This just means that Mac users have to keep their OS patched--like Windows users--but there's no cause for alarm. Apple has an automatic update service, just as Microsoft does for Windows. Using this service is the best way to keep your Apple software current.

The Unix-based nature of Mac OS X remains much more of a strength than a liability. Although it allows greater exposure, it also makes it likely that programmers can and will respond with fixes quickly.

Regardless of whether this tarnishes Apple's halo, the bottom line remains that attacks on the Mac have been vastly fewer than those on Windows. Most typical Mac users still have little to fear from the miscreants we Windows users have to vigilantly guard against.

On the Browser Beat: Opera 7.5

Believe it or not, I did not exhaust browser options with my last two columns: "The State of Mac Browsing--An Embarrassment of Riches" and "Yowza, More Mac Browsers."

Opera is one of the better-known alternative browsers, and it's available for lots of platforms, including a native version for Mac OS X. When I took Opera 7.5 for a spin, I found some graceful notes, but quite a few grating ones as well. (If you're interested in looking at a Windows version, you can download one from our site.)

The installation routine was one of the pleasant surprises. A dialog box helps you with the installation, which isn't terribly intuitive with many Mac products. If you've never downloaded a disk image before, it can be baffling to learn that you need to double-click on it and drag it into the Applications folder on your hard drive. Mac mavens won't need this bit of handholding, but newbies and those of us who have one foot in both worlds appreciate it.

You can use an ad-supported version of the browser indefinitely without paying; you get a choice of random graphical ads or context-related text ads from Google. The text ads appear in a narrow bar at the top of the window, above the menus. At first this seems unobtrusive, but I found that it cramped my style as I continued to surf--I definitely noticed the diminished screen area for the active page. To banish ads altogether will cost you $39, but you do get some tech support with that fee.

Opera is loaded with Internet utilities, to the point of being cluttered. In the default configuration, icons for all these tools, including Bookmarks and Contacts, line the left side of the browser window, and a slide-out panel lets you work with these utilities, one at a time. You can customize the location of the panel--it can be at the left, right, or floating. For me, though, floating toolbars never end up being very useful; I'm constantly moving them away from where I'm reading or typing. But it's a one-click no-brainer just to close the tool panel, and the pull-down menu for switching among tools is slick.

Opera's privacy features are as robust as most other browsers', and they're fairly usable--though not as elegantly implemented as in OmniWeb or Safari. The History and Cache each have their own submenu in Preferences, though there is no one-button privacy cleanup. Rather than letting you choose how many days' worth of URLs to save, Opera's History asks how many URLs you want to save. Both saved URLs and cached pages can be cleared with one click. The Privacy tab has some unusual and welcome options, such as disabling referrer logging. You can also choose which cookies to accept, and Opera differentiates between normal cookies and third-party cookies, which are usually sent by an ad server. However, the ambiguous wording of some of these choices can leave you wondering exactly what you're doing when you click them. For example, the cookie-handling options include unfamiliar terms like "Treat as specified in Server Manager" and "Accept only cookies set to the server itself." You have to dig into the Help file to find out what these mean.

Opera's look and feel is customizable. But in the default Mac OS X configuration I tried, the Web page window was shrunk between the ads and the tool panel--and I would not pay to remove the ads.

The clincher for me in using--or not using--Opera for OS X is that several pages I visited didn't render the way they should have, including forms. Though some people swear by Opera because it takes up less hard drive real estate than bloatware like Internet Explorer (the Mac version I used was 9.7MB, versus a 15MB footprint for my current favorite, OmniWeb; 16.8MB for Safari; 25.1MB for Firefox; and 23.6MB for IE), rendering pages properly is a browser's first duty. On that score, Opera didn't make it past its first heat in my browser derby.

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