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Mac OS-X the subject of intensified hacker activity

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January 25, 2008

According to the latest edition of the Sophos Security Threat Report, potential Internet hackers are now looking beyond computers working under the Windows operating system as targets for their attacks. Now Macs are increasingly the targets of hacker activity. Sophos predicts that - based on early flaws with the Safari browser - Apple's iPhone devices might also become prime targets as well in the near future.

By most measures, Sophos isn't the first anti-virus company to warn of increased security problems for Mac users. Symantec has been saying the perceived security advantages of Apple Macs are false for at least two or three years.

Overall, the very limited number of Mac OS X viruses in existence has largely been proof of concept efforts. Reg Hardware editor Tony Smith said that the last 'serious' Mac virus affected Mac OS 7 back in 1992. The virus slowed down machines quite a bit. However, it was easily squashed with the freeware Virex package.

Sophos says the apparent "false feel of comfort" is set to change with the recent arrival of profit-driven malware targeting Mac users. Until recently, organized criminals have not felt the need to target Mac users when there are so many more poorly protected Windows PCs available.

Graham Cluley, senior Internet security consultant at Sophos, said the creation of Mac-specific malware by those responsibles for the Zlob worm marked a turning point in the creation of Mac-specific virus.

Late last year some witnessed financially-motivated hackers turning towards Macs for the first time. For example, many versions of the malicious OSX/RSPlug Trojan horse, first seen in November, were planted on websites designed to infect surfing Apple Mac computers for the purposes of phishing and identity theft.

Obviously, the volume of Mac OS X-specific malware is orders of magnitude less than that affecting Windows boxes. Sophos, for example, list 30 Mac OS X malware strains compared to 330,000 Windows pathogens. The U.S. military recently said it was using more Mac systems because they were less commonly attacked.

Sophos markets a line of anti-virus products for Macs, but these are targeted at corporates rather than consumers. Cluley was keen to downplay any suggestion that its Mac security warning was anything to do with promoting sales.

Overall, some nasty viruses are capable of infecting Mac machines running specific software. Also, differences in generic detections of viruses mean that counting the precise number of Mac-infecting malware strains is trickier than it might seem.

Cluley said that although Mac systems might be "safer because less people are throwing bombs at them, nevertheless, that doesn't mean they are more secure than any other operating system."

He added "Mac users might be running a cool OS that updates all the time, but it's still possible to lose money through phishing and identity theft on any device with an Internet connection. For many years, Mac users have prided themselves on making smarter decisions than their PC cousins. Well, now's the chance to prove it."

Cluley, whose main unit at home is a Mac running anti-virus software, said Mac users needed to be savvy about avoiding social engineering attacks. Specifically, he said "in a sense, the number of security vulnerabilities in each platform is beside the point. But the "social engineering lures" certainly are very much the same."

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Source: Sophos

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