Saturday, December 15, 2007

Apple Fails to Properly Inform the Public on Security Issues

Via Register UK -

Apple has released updates for two widely distributed products that harbored a raft of security vulnerabilities, some of which were actively being exploited by miscreants. Unbelievably, the company isn't presenting either as a security fix to mainstream users despite the risk the bugs pose for its millions of users.

QuickTime 7.3.1 fixes at least three vulnerabilities. The most serious of them resided in the way QuickTime interacts with servers that stream music and video and gave miscreants the ability to completely hijack both PCs and Macs alike. According to Symantec criminals have been exploiting it for two weeks now by luring victims to booby-trapped websites.

The update, which was released Thursday, plugs two other holes, both of which give an attacker the ability to execute malicious code on vulnerable machines.

A day later, Apple updated its Java runtime software for Macs running earlier versions of OS X. Java Release 6 for Mac OS X 10.4 fixes more than a dozen vulnerabilities, at least one of which was publicly disclosed more than a year ago. Like many of the others being plugged, the hole gave criminals the ability to remotely control a user's machine. Users of Leopard, the OS X version released in late October, are not susceptible.

We fired up QuickTime on a PC and promptly received a popup window alerting us that the update "is highly recommended." But nowhere is there any mention of vulnerabilities that can be milked by a cyber criminal halfway around the world. We've yet to install either update on a Mac, but according to this post on Ryan Naraine's Zero Day blog, the Java update similarly omits any mention of security vulnerabilities.


Several reader comments have claimed there are factual inaccuracies in the above story. For support, these readers point to the security alert Apple provides for QuickTime 7.3.1 for Mac. It's great Apple is warning that it's latest QuickTime for Mac fixes security bugs. Two facts remain:

1) As the screenshot to the right makes clear, Mac users who don't read tech pubs have no reason to believe the latest Java update has anything to do with security. A reasonable person could read that alert and think there's no real rush in installing the patch.

2) The alert PC users get for QuickTime 7.3.1 similarly makes no mention of security issues. This omission is bad for the same reason.

3) The comment that these vulnerabilities only crash Macs is flat-out wrong. Hell, even Apple plainly admits these vulnerabilities allow remote execution of arbitrary code, and private researchers have also written exploit code that demonstrates this.


In my view, these recent Quicktime vulnerabilities and exploits show that Apple is not thinking about its end user's security. They are more worried about protecting their own bottom line and their growth in market share (even if it is still small).

Let’s remember, you don't have to own an iBook to be an Apple end-user. Every person with iTunes or Quicktime installed on a computer (Mac or PC) is an Apple end-user....plain and simple. I won't even question why they force iTunes users to install Quicktime, which is another soapbox.

In the past, Apple has been very tight lipped about security issues and in some cases this is justified. But in the face of public exploits and in-the-wild exploitation, I believe it is completely irresponsible of Apple to remain mute on a security issue (especially when dealing with highly critical internet exploitable vulnerabilities). Of course, I have been saying this since mid 2006.

Do I believe that they need to disclose all vulnerabilities they plan on fixing in an upcoming patch? Of course not. But they could confirm the pubic issues, give a possible ETA on a fix and suggest risk mitigation measures. I just uninstalled Quicktime...that was my mitigation.

Is it too much to say..."we see it and we are working on it, expect a fix early next week..."

Almost all the big boys play this way in the face of public exploits - Microsoft, Adobe, Mozilla, Cisco, etc (even AOL).

If Apple believes that hanging their end-users out to dry for three weeks in the face of public exploitation is a great way of building trust between customers, they need a serious wake-up call.

Moral of the Story - Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Apple should trust their end-users enough to make their own security decisions. They should give real public responses which contain responsible information about the public vulnerabilities. No canned media responses. You can say you are serious about security all you want, but actions speak longer than words.

Basically, Apple should open a window or two and let the sunlight in.

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