Lessons for IT, Apple in Flashback Brouhaha
Although the number of Flashback-infected Macs is on the decline, the reverberations from the outbreak will affect Apple and the businesses that have increasingly adopted Macs. Columnist Ryan Faas explains.
Mon, April 16, 2012
Computerworld — While the number of Macs infected by the Flashback malware is seemingly in decline now, the security reverberations for Apple continue. The discovery of the botnet a couple of weeks ago -- and Apple's response -- has prompted criticism by IT security pros, concern among Mac users and even some smug told-you-so's from Windows users who've watched for years while Apple and its fans derided the the omnipresent malware issues plaguing PCs.
Security by obscurity, if it ever existed, is no more.
Now that Apple and several third-party software firms have produced detection and removal tools, it's time to take stock of the situation and dig a little deeper. What does the Flashback debacle mean for Mac users, Apple itself and the businesses that have increasingly adopted Macs? And does it affect those with iPads and iPhones?
Just a drop in the bucket
Let's start with a reality check. The only reason this story got the attention it did is because for more than a decade Mac OS X has not been hit hard with any major malware threat. There have been some proof-of-concept pieces written; plenty of Macs have been infected with Microsoft Office macro viruses (that generally have no damaging effects on Macs, especially those running Office 2008, which didn't offer macro support); and there have been a couple of genuine malware alerts that didn't amount to a serious online threat.
A piece of malware like Flashback that targeted Windows PCs would've been a minor story in tech circles that ended with reports of anti-virus companies releasing updated malware definitions, Microsoft releasing a patch for the underlying vulnerability, and possibly a free detection and removal tool being pushed out to users. This is something that happens in the PC world all the time. But not on the Apple side of the equation.
Given the thousands of malware threats facing Windows PCs, this is barely a drop in the bucket. As a result, Apple came under much closer scrutiny than any other major company would have been in similar circumstances.
The good and the bad of Apple's response
Apple may have been subjected to more scrutiny than Microsoft, but there were some telling points in how it handled the situation.
First, the company made the unfortunate choice of trying to shut down the domain used by Dr. Web researchers seeking to determine the extent of the infection. A generous take would be that Apple took a misstep because this is a new experience for it. A more jaundiced view would be that Apple was trying to minimize information about the extent of Flashback infections. (The truth is probably somewhere in between.)