Is Mac OS as safe as ever?

Trio of threats suggest hackers are now eyeing the previously ignored software. Should fans worry?

Apple Computer fans have long loved to point out the safety of using Mac OS X, which has mostly been left alone by hackers. But the recent arrival of three threats has some asking: Is the software's charmed security life over?

In the past two weeks, a pair of worms that target Mac OS X have been discovered, along with an easily exploitable, severe security flaw. The vulnerability exposes Mac users to risks that are more familiar to Windows owners: the installation of malicious code through a or e-mail.

While these threats represent a sea change, there is no need for Mac owners to worry, experts said, as the published attacks are still mainly theoretical and not widespread. But they caution that Apple fans should not be smug: Now that it's been done, other malicious code writers are likely to turn their attention to the operating system.

It's a "small step in malicious code development for OS X," said Kevin Long, an analyst at security specialist Cybertrust and a Mac user for 11 years. "The message we need to get out there is that Mac users should not be complacent."

While Microsoft Windows users have grown accustomed to a seemingly incessant stream of computer worms, viruses and security vulnerabilities, the same is not true for Mac owners. Going by forum postings, many Apple customers believe their systems are much better protected against cyberattacks than the average Windows PC.

"Mac malware is not a myth. It is very real," said Kevin Finisterre, a security researcher at Digital Munition. Finisterre created the Inqtana worm, which targets Mac OS X and spreads using an 8-month-old vulnerability in Apple's Bluetooth software. "My point with Inqtana was to say, 'Hey! Wake up!'" he said.

Finisterre did not release his worm into the wild. He created Inqtana only to prove a point and to encourage antivirus makers to update their products against malicious software using the same method of attack, he said. Furthermore, Inqtana was programmed so that it could never spread far.

"Go buy yourself some antivirus software, keep your Apple updates current and stop pretending that you are invincible, because you are not," Finisterre advised Mac users.

The risk for Apple system users grows slightly every day, Long said. The number of people using Macs is growing, which makes attacks more likely, he said. Some have suggested that Mac OS X's previous immunity to threats is due partly to malicious coders focusing on Microsoft products, which have a much larger user base and so bring a much bigger scope for impact.

"Many think that the Macintosh operating system is impervious to viruses or these kind of security threats. It is not that they are impervious; they are targeted less," said Craig Schmugar, virus research manager at McAfee.

'Don't freak out'
The events of the last two weeks could change that. Hackers have had their interest in Apple piqued, Finisterre said. "It is a semi-new frontier, so to speak," he said.

Even so, the incidents likely won't have any significant fallout, Long said. "Hopefully, the end result is that people are a little more careful. They don't need to freak out about this," he said.

Many Mac users seem unfazed.

"I don't see myself changing any habits or panicking and running out to grab antivirus," CNET reader Shane Walker wrote in an e-mail. "I am concerned, but not overly so. You just need to take the right precautions, watch your e-mail attachments and what you download like a hawk, and try to avoid known or seemingly questionable sites."

Another CNET reader, using the initials J.G., said the three incidents don't bother him. "They are 'proof of concept,' not actual malware loose in the wild," the reader wrote in an e-mail. "I think much of the attention now being focused on Macs and OS X will dissipate in a few months."

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