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5 misconceptions about macOS security in enterprise environments

This article dispels a few mainstream myths about macOS security that may give individuals and organizations illusory confidence in their current defenses.

Despite dynamically evolving cybersecurity measures enhanced by machine learning, heuristic threat detection, and protections at the hardware level, a tamper-proof operating system is in the realms of wishful thinking. Even more so if seasoned, well-motivated criminals set out to orchestrate an attack on a corporate network that holds a plethora of valuable data. Stealthy interaction-less attacks, zero-day exploits, and manipulation of the human element play into malicious actors’ hands to slip below the radar.

Apple’s macOS is impressive in terms of both performance and security, but it has its hiccups and problems that can make riff-raff’s day. Furthermore, its flexibility is a double-edged sword: while bolstering seamless user experience, it trailblazes misconfigurations that often become the stepping stones to compromise.

Excessive trust in the Mac’s vaunted native security is another mainstream fallacy. Let’s face it: these machines are susceptible to harmful code ranging from adware and info-stealers to cryptocurrency miners and even ransomware. Opting for managed security services is a solid choice for organizations that seek to harden their defenses from multiple different angles. But what if a company hasn’t matured enough to make that move?

In the following paragraphs, I’ll go over the 5 popular misbeliefs about macOS that give users an illusory sense of security and also do businesses a major disservice in the long run. Without further ado, let’s dive right in.

1. Mac malware is marginal

Today, the statement that Macs are hardly ever targeted by malicious code is nothing but an unfounded speculation. Malware strains tailored to run on these machines have been a rising scourge of the past decade. Albeit less common than PC counterparts quantitatively, these culprits are increasingly diverse.

Over the years, we’ve seen outbreaks of Mac malware, from spyware and cryptocurrency stealers to backdoor Trojans and browser-hijacking adware. To top it off, ransomware is no stranger to macOS, and the impact from these nasties has gone way beyond screen locking pranks. Cybercrooks have mastered techniques to bypass Apple’s Gatekeeper, Notarization, XProtect, and hardware-centric M1 chip security controls to orchestrate impactful large-scale attacks. All in all, Mac malware is no longer rare, so users and orgs should adjust their security postures accordingly.

2. Adware is no big deal

According to the 2023 State of Malware report from Malwarebytes, adware is the undisputed champion in the arena of Mac threats. A single lineage codenamed OSX.Genieo accounts for a whopping 10% of all detections across the macOS ecosystem.

Often referred to as potentially unwanted programs (PUPs), these strains might seem moderate in terms of the danger they pose to systems. They mostly hijack web browsers, redirecting victims to search engine copycats such as Search Alpha. Some of them inject advertising scripts into web pages on a contaminated browser.

However, few people know that the problem can be bigger than the mere nuisance effect. Adware families such as Shlayer and Adload gained notoriety for establishing connections to remote sites to download more malware behind the scenes. To skew the appearance of web pages and embed ads, some samples execute what’s called man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks and install proxy tools that enable snooping on user’s online activities. To recap here, adware isn’t just irritating – it can get dangerous.

3. System updates aren’t that important

Some users believe that if their Mac is running smoothly and they haven’t encountered any issues, there’s no need to bother with regular macOS updates. The reality is that system updates play an oft-ignored role of patching security vulnerabilities. Apple continuously monitors and addresses potential threats stemming from loopholes in different frameworks and layers of its software environment. For instance, their engineers regularly unveil arbitrary code execution and privilege escalation gaps in Safari.

It's worth emphasizing that periodic supplemental updates tend to be far more important security-wise than annual new macOS version releases. Mundane point updates are focused on fixing bugs and enhancing protections against critical flaws; while major platform updates prioritize user experience improvements and new features, some of which can be buggy. That being said, postponing regular updates rolled out by Apple is risky business.

4. The Mac’s built-in security is enough

Mac fans may assume that because the system is known for its robust security controls, additional measures are redundant. While Apple does invest heavily in macOS defenses against various forms of exploitation, no system is immune to threats. A lot of the chores are on the end-user. In organizations, proper security hygiene should be enforced through corporate policies.

People should use strong passwords, consider enabling two-factor authentication, and be cautious about the websites they visit as well as the files they download. A major area of proper digital safety relates to phishing awareness, as treacherous online scams are increasingly common and the losses incurred by organizations reach mind-boggling heights.

Ramping up the user’s security practices is always a good idea, but there’s definitely room to take it up a notch when an organization’s cyber well-being is at stake. Enterprise-grade antimalware and internet security solutions add an extra level of protection from threats in a world where human error is always a potential issue.

5. Mac users are outside cybercriminals’ focus

The fact that bad guys still consider the Windows ecosystem “juicier” in terms of ROI doesn’t mean that macOS is on the sidelines of their strategies. First off, the Mac market is no longer so tiny compared to the PC counterpart. As of July 2023, its share among desktop operating systems amounted to 20.42%, making it the world’s second most popular platform. From an attacker’s perspective, turning the blind eye to these stats is like ignoring the elephant in the room.

Unsurprisingly, Macs are increasingly in the crosshairs. Another thing to consider is that Apple has been making moves toward merging different features and software architecture components across its computer (macOS) and mobile (iOS, iPadOS) platforms. Continuity Camera, Universal Control, Sidecar, AirPlay to Mac, AirDrop, Handoff, Universal Clipboard, Instant Hotspot are prime examples of this trend. This means that breaching one device can become a springboard for accessing linked ones, which translates to a greater attack surface.

Therefore, the belief that malefactors aren’t interested in Macs gives users and companies a false sense of security. This illusion fuels lax security practices, playing right into threat actors’ hands.

To recap

A sober understanding of macOS security is the first step toward creating a robust defense strategy for users and organizations that rely on these machines as daily drivers. Believing that the Mac is impervious to threats, that Apple’s native security is infallible, or that software updates can be overlooked poses significant risks to personal and professional data. The Cupertino tech giant’s commitment to security is commendable, but it’s essential for users to complement these features with proactive measures.


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