Safety’s more than a Name

Safety’s more than a Name
Mac Tip #153/16-June-2004

Zombie PCs, trojans, viruses and worms, spyware, malware, backdoors, open ports, scams and phishing — It’s sad but true that these are all words and phrases ordinary computer users like you and me need to know nowadays. Essentially these are all words for “bad guys”. A future Tip will provide more details.

An example news item:

Zombie PCs infected by various spam viruses were used to send out anti-immigrant polemics in German to computers all over the world Thursday. Experts believe that political activists used spammers to send out the emails.

Now, unfortunately, we also have the “good guys” who can be exploited by the bad guys under certain circumstances. These are the ones which have caused the recent scare in the Mac world.

The “problem” is that Apple wanted to make it easy for us to use our Macs without getting a computer science degree. One handy dandy feature is if you go to a website and download some new software the Mac handles all the details most of us don’t want to know about such as encoding, compressing and even installing the software in the right place. And I bet you’re glad it does. It’s certainly made my Mac training and support work a lot easier as time has gone by.

But what say a malicious, evil entity wanted to get into your Mac and do rotten stuff such as deleting all your files? Maybe it could use this feature to sneak in? In real life this is akin to the small, skinny burglar who can fit through the dog door.

In the early months of 2004 it became clear that this approach is possible. Its official name is “the URL-Based Mac OS X Vulnerability”. Here’s how it could work (with thanks to TidBITS and Sander Tekelenburg).

  1. You visit a website (or possibly another source of the files).
  2. You click a link or button and download a file.
  3. The file organises itself and tells the Mac “Hey, I’m a good guy!”.
  4. Another file arrives and says “I’m with him” so the Mac lets it get to work.
  5. All your files are deleted.

Now, that’s a very loose and fuzzy description and you can find vast quantities of details in many other places.

My main point is: It’s a worry. It makes your Mac potentially unsafe and leads to concerns about visiting websites or clicking buttons or links in emails and other places, even the Help files.

The solutions

  1. Be alert and careful as you visit websites and handle email or carry out other Internet related activities.
  2. Download and install Apple’s security updates. Visit the Apple Security web page for more information.
  3. Read this Apple explanation page through even if you don’t understand it or parts of it.
  4. If an alert pops up on your Mac asking for your permission or password to do something then stop and think about it before just clicking OK.

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