Saturday, April 04, 2009

Safe Computing

I sit here in my home office, completely surrounded by technology. Three desktops and a laptop running, two desktops in various states of disrepair, a multifunction inkjet printer, and a laser printer, are all within eight feet of where I sit. All of the computers are running or configured to run Microsoft operating systems, XP, Vista, or Windows Home Server. I haven't used a Macintosh since I gave up my old Mac SE. Well, that's not quite true. I bought a Mac Mini for the church a few years back and I spent some time configuring it and playing with the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.


Lots of people are moving to the Mac platform. You hear things about the Mac being "virus free" or people saying things like "I've never owned any anti-virus software. My Mac doesn't need it". All I can think is "your time will come, my friend." In fact, I think your time is very near. According to an article on Ars Technica, the market share of Mac OS X browsers (a reasonable indicator of Mac ownership) has increased steadily since 2007. In January 2009 the Mac OS X browser market share was 9.63%, up from 6.38% in February 2007. What does that mean? Mac computers are getting more popular.


OK, I hear you. So what? Macs are getting more popular. Good for them. Well, maybe not. Let's think about this for a moment. According to, Microsoft has 87.5% of the OS market share, with Apple's Mac OS X at 8.66%, Linux at 1%, and 2.9% for other OS out there. Let's discount the fact that there are lots of bugs in the Microsoft OS, actually, let's assume there are equal numbers of bugs in ALL operating systems. Using a military term, Microsoft is a "target of opportunity" because it has such a large market share. If you want to crack into a computer, and you don't know what the operating system of that computer is, it's a good guess it's Microsoft based. But Apple's Mac OS X is on the rise. That means that crackers will soon start focusing on OS X, if they haven't already. And OS X is a nice, soft target because so many Mac users have been lulled into a false sense of security.


OK, you say, what about Linux? It has a real small market share, right? That means it's safe, right? Um, no. Not really. Linux is a very powerful operating system (and Mac OS X is similar to Linux in that it is based on Unix). So powerful is the same as not safe? No, not really. There are many different ways to configure a Linux-based system. Those configurations may include opening up ports or controlled holes in the firewall on the computer, or turning the firewall off altogether. This can inject vulnerabilities into the configuration if you don't know what you're doing. Linux has historically been the OS of choice of crackers, because of its ability to be configured and manipulated. You can configure a Linux computer to look like other operating systems, both visually and on the network.


So, what am I trying to say here? No computer is inherently secure simply because of its operating system. All operating systems have vulnerabilities. Microsoft operating systems are vulnerable because they are the most widely used operating system, so they are an easier target. So far, OS X has been reasonable safe because of "security through obscurity". And while there is no honor among thieves, there is among crackers, so most Linux-based computers are safe because of "professional courtesy". There is malicious software for any and all operating systems out there. No one operating system is safe, because no operating system development team can consider all the possible weaknesses inherent to their system. You need to protect your computer from attacks. If you have sensitive information on your computer (like checking account numbers, date of birth, etc. what is known as Personally Identifiable Information or PII) you need to protect that information. Please protect your computer, no matter what operating system is running on it. Get anti-virus software, anti-spyware software, and a firewall to protect you from the bad guys out there.


Tucker said...

Great post! I used to argue with my friend who was an Apple bigot that MS was the only way to fly. That was 5 yrs ago. Macs are increasing in popularity. Everywhere I go and people I know are all making the switch. Schools are making the switch to macs. You are right, there day is coming.
I'm amazed at how much disrespect MS gets when they have to create an OS that adapts to so many different hardware specs. And when is the last time you heard of a major outbreak of a virus? You just need to be careful the sites you visit, the attachments you open and how you protect it with software. Still, there are no guarantees.

john dobbs said...

Good thoughts, Phil. We always have to keep our guard up against internet thieves!

VesselProject said...

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