Mac OS X Security Challenge

Mon 6 March 2006 9:00 PM CST

  • This challenge will end on Fri 10 March 2006 10:00 AM CST
  • This machine will be moving to a new network sometime the evening of 6 March; the cutover will be transparent
  • Mon 6 March 2006 10:00 AM CST

    In response to the woefully misleading ZDnet article, Mac OS X hacked under 30 minutes, the academic Mac OS X Security Challenge has been launched.

    The ZDnet article, and almost all of the coverage of it, failed to mention a very critical point: anyone who wished it was given a local account on the machine (which could be accessed via ssh).  Yes, there are local privilege escalation vulnerabilities; likely some that are "unpublished".  But this machine was not hacked from the outside just by being on the Internet.  It was hacked from within, by someone who was allowed to have a local account on the box.  That is a huge distinction.

    Almost all consumer Mac OS X machines will:

  • Not give any external entities local account access
  • Not even have any ports open
  • In addition to the above, most consumer machines will also be behind personal router/firewall devices, further reducing exposure
  • The challenge is as follows: simply alter the web page on this machine, The machine is a Mac mini (PowerPC) running Mac OS X 10.4.5 with Security Update 2006-001, has two local accounts, and has ssh and http open - a lot more than most Mac OS X machines will ever have open.  Email das[at] if you feel you have met the requirements, along with the mechanism used.  The mechanism will then be reported to Apple and/or the entities responsible for the component(s).

    Mac OS X is not invulnerable.  It, like any other operating system, has security deficiencies in various aspects of the software.  Some are technical in nature, and others lend themselves to social engineering trickery.  However, the general architecture and design philosophy of Mac OS X, in addition to usage of open source components for most network-accessible services that receive intense peer scrutiny from the community, make Mac OS X a very secure operating system.  There have been serious vulnerabilities in Mac OS X that could be taken advantage of; however, most Mac OS X "vulnerabilities" to date have relied on typical trojan social engineering tactics, not genuine vulnerabilities. The recent Safari vulnerability was promptly addressed by Apple, as are any exploits reported to Apple.  Apple does a fairly good job with regard to security, and has greatly improved its reporting processes after pressure from institutional Mac OS X users: Apple is responsive to security concerns with Mac OS X, which is one of the most important pieces of the security picture.

    The "Mac OS X hacked under 30 minutes" story doesn't mention that local access was granted to the system.  While local privilege escalation exploits can certainly be dangerous - and used in conjunction with things like the above Safari exploit - this isn't very informative with regard to the general security of a Mac OS X machine sitting on the Internet.

    I have commented a bit on Mac OS X security in general.

    Is there a prize?

    There is no prize but recognition (if desired). This is an academic effort.

    Objections to this test

    Some have objected to this test as doing nothing more than testing the security of apache or ssh on a PowerPC architecture.  That is correct.  And that is how most of the world will see Mac OS X externally.  The original article was not fair, because it did not note, or even imply, or hint in any way, that local account access was granted.  The whole point of Apple using proven open source services like OpenSSH and apache on Mac OS X is exactly because of their secure nature as a result of years of scrutiny by the community.  Most users of Mac OS X in a consumer or desktop setting will never even enable any of these services at all.  It's unfortunate that the initial coverage was so journalistically poor and sensationalistic on what might otherwise have been an article about an interesting local vulnerability.  Instead, it chose to leave people with the impression that a Mac OS X machine can be "hacked" just by doing nothing more that being on the Internet.  That is patently false.

    Important note

    This page may be updated by me.  Any changes will be announced via this site.  Last update: Mon Mar 6 21:05:35 CST 2006

    Contact Information/Media Inquiries:

    Dave Schroeder
    University of Wisconsin
    +1 608 265-4737