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LAS VEGAS, Nevada Jul 21, 2015/ Troy Media/ – One of the major selling points for Apple products has been the perception that they are impervious to malware and viruses. “I don’t need antivirus protection,” many users say. “I have a Mac.” That confidence extended to mobile devices and applications as well. Since applications in the Apple App Store must pass a rigorous vetting process before being added to the store, the likelihood of malware slipping through and infecting iPhones and iPads has been slim to none.
Until recently, that is. While the chances of an Apple product being infected with a virus or malware might have been low in the past, the growth in the company’s market share in the last few years has made the machines a more tempting target for cybercriminals. Granted, the number of incidents of viruses attacking Apple products is much lower than other platforms, but it is still a growing and serious risk. In fact, the very fact that devices running on the OSX or iOS platforms can serve as a conduit for malware to infect other machines has made installing antivirus for Mac a necessity.
Another reason that antivirus is necessary? A number of recent studies have revealed that, despite Apple’s strict control on apps, they are still vulnerable to zero day exploits.
Hackers and viruses finding weaknesses in the armor
Zero day exploits are nothing new in the world of cybersecurity. In the simplest terms, a zero day exploit is a security vulnerability that is identified and exploited by hackers before developers are aware of them.
In many cases, the vulnerabilities are patched relatively quickly, but not before the damage is done. Because Apple keeps such a tight hold on its operating system, it’s been largely protected against such exploits. However, a series of experiments conducted by several groups, including Google, have identified several potential security risks.
The first news about Apple’s potential zero-day risks was revealed earlier this year, when Google’s Project Zero, an ongoing research effort designed to identify potential zero-day exploits, found three possible problems in the OSX operating system.
Compared to some of the zero-day exploits that have been identified on other operating systems, the potential holes actually didn’t raise much concern. They appeared to require a hacker to already have control of the machine in order to be put to use; in other words, these exploits aren’t likely to be used as a means to gain access to or control of a machine. However, the researchers did point out that, when combined with another type of attack, these holes could be leveraged to cause bigger problems on vulnerable machines.
While it’s suspected that most of these security flaws were corrected in subsequent updates of OSX (Apple doesn’t comment publicly on such matters) there is still a possibility that older machines or those running on non-updated versions of OSX could still be vulnerable to attack. This is especially concerning given the results of another study conducted at Indiana University, where researchers discovered an additional three potential exploits – and these could actually cause some serious damage.
Stolen passwords, leaked data
In the IU study, six researchers discovered that the OSX operating system contains multiple flaws that could potentially allow malicious applications to steal data, intercept communications, steal passwords, and hijack user machines. The iOS system contained a single flaw that creates the same risks.
In layman’s terms, the identified flaws concerned Apple’s procedures for checking apps for the App Store, communication between apps, and how apps check on storage on the machine. These weaknesses, referred to as “unauthorized cross-app resource access,” were written into applications that passed the Apple vetting process and made it into official app store.
In fact, it’s the fact that these apps actually passed Apple’s notoriously stringent process that has many security experts concerned. In this case, the researchers had no malicious intent, but if they can do it, it’s quite possible that more nefarious individuals could do the same. And the results are potentially disastrous: According the report on the study, the malware allowed the hackers to access login credentials stored on Keychain, giving them access to iCloud and other applications.
The good news is that Apple is aware of these flaws, and actively working to close the gaps. In addition, the application vetting process now includes checks for apps that exploit the vulnerabilities, which makes the App Store still the safest source for applications. Users can also protect themselves via antivirus software, and practicing good password management. The bottom line is that Apple is no longer completely safe from hackers and viruses, so it’s time for users to take precautions and protect themselves from hackers.