February wasn’t a good month for Apple Computer, as lots of people wondered whether the company’s once-impregnable operating system was vulnerable. But cries of doom in the popular press are premature. In reality, two of the three security issues concerning Apple’s OS X operating system that arose last month triggered very low-level security alerts. In fact, they would probably not have garnered attention had they not come on top of each other – and had there not also been the discovery of a security hole in Apple’s Web browser, Safari – a hole that is a potentially serious problem.
The first security issue, called Inqtana, was a “proof of concept”: that is, it did not exist outside the world of programmers checking for potential problems in software. It was first reported by numerous people to the IT security firm Secunia, which classified it as a worm. (A worm is a self-replicating virus that enters a computer or network and can cause disruptions.)
Inqtana exploited a problem with the Bluetooth wireless communications protocol in order to send copies of itself to other computers. It was designed simply to illustrate this weakness, and didn’t do anything else. In fact, it was never reported outside of testing conditions, and was even coded with an “internal counter” that rendered it dead after February 24.
Still, it inspired swift action. Apple quickly released a system patch that proofed Mac OS X 10.4.5 against it. Ironically, some other proposed solutions were more problematic than the worm itself. For instance, the U.K.-based company Sophos Plc issued an Inqtana update to its anti-virus software, which recommended that users delete certain files and applications – many of which were critical (and uninfected). According to the company, the flawed version of its product was available for less than two hours before it was patched.
The other “non-issue” was called Leap by security companies, and originally dubbed Oompa-Loompa (later amended to Oomp-A). That exploit shares characteristics of both a worm and Trojan horse – a seemingly innocuous program or file that, after getting itself installed, can compromise a user’s online privacy.
Oomp-A masqueraded as a desirable image, running a program called a shell script, which directly interfaces with the operating system. It tried to copy and send itself through iChat, the Mac OS X’s instant-messaging application, to other computers on a local wireless network. Security companies deemed Oomp-A a low risk, with little chance of doing damage. When several Apple experts dissected it, they found Oomp-A to be not only fairly harmless, but also poorly written. As Apple expert Andrew Welch says, “You cannot simply ‘catch’ the virus [Oomp-A]…you cannot be infected unless you unarchive [decompress] the file, and then open it.”