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Triple threat to Mac OS X largely academic
Robert Lemos, SecurityFocus 2006-02-24

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The InqTana worm, created by security researcher Kevin Finisterre of Digital Munitions, held to responsible disclosure but runs counter to many antivirus vendors' assertions that creating viruses and worms is not an acceptable security practice. Finisterre created the InqTana worm, and two variants, to show that a worm could spread through Macs. Each variant uses a different method to copy itself onto a computer running Mac OS X.

However, Finisterre designed the worms not to spread in general. The programs made use of a vulnerability found and reported by Finisterre and fixed by Apple last June. The researcher also hobbled the worm by requiring that a user agree to allow the program to spread to their computer, and placed a time limit on how long it could spread. Moreover, he only sent the program to security contacts at Apple, major antivirus companies and a single independent security group.

"I have heard of so many folks touting that misconception that Macs can't get viruses that I thought it was about time to start a dialog with some of the AV companies and express some of my ideas," Finisterre said. "In the process of confirming my own concerns, this code was created. I am not one for talking about things in concept form--I like to actually implement and prove a concept."

While InqTana is not a danger, Finisterre stressed that Mac users need to wake up to the fact that successful worms and viruses will attempt to attack the Mac OS X in the future. The poorly programmed OSX.Leap.A also shows that malicious coders are focusing on the platform, he said.

"The idea that Macs can't get viruses is simply absurd and I wanted to highlight that fact," Finisterre said. "It was pure coincidence that Leap.A had already set out to prove that the old wives' tale is false."

F-Secure's Albrecht stressed that worms are not a good way to demonstrate vulnerabilities, but that the two programs, despite their lack of success, do show that viruses and worms are a threat for the platform.

"I would never want to say releasing a virus is a good idea, but the worms for the Mac OS X are a wake up call for the community and that is a good thing," Albrecht said. (Symantec, a rival to F-Secure in the antivirus industry, is the owner of SecurityFocus.)

The two worms and the exploit could also give would-be malicious coders encouragement in their attempts to create programs for the Mac OS X platform, said Peter Allor, director of intelligence for Internet Security Systems.

"It's like going through the sound barrier," Allor said. "People think you can't go through the sound barrier and then someone does it and suddenly people know it's possible. It doesn't mean that people are going through the sound barrier every day, but they know they can."

While many Mac users are cognizant of security risks, others--oft-times referred to as the "Mac Faithful"--take umbrage at what security professionals regard as common-sense security precautions, said Jay Beale, senior security consultant with Intelguardians and leader of the Bastille Linux Project.

Mac users should take the convergence of the three threats as a signal to inspect their defenses against online attacks, he said.

"We Mac users have been living in this great world where we are more vulnerable than other Unixes, but we weren't seeing any attacks because we weren't targeted," Beale said. "I think we are going to see a lot more of this in the next year."

In addition, Apple needs to shake off its secretive approach to security and communicate better with the community and security researchers, said Finisterre. The researcher said that his attempts to communicate with the security response team at Apple has been mixed.

"Macs will continue to attract attention, and by doing so, we are going to see a lot of creative attacks come out," Finisterre said. "The ultimate outcome is in Apple's hands--how they respond both proactively and reactively will make all the difference."


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