TweetFollow Us on Twitter

File System Security

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 11
Column Tag: Programming

Section 7

File System Security

by Rich Morin

How (not) to make OS X as secure as MS Windows...

Mac OS X inherits most of its notions of file system security from BSD. Each file system node (file, directory, ...) has sets of permission (i.e., mode) bits for its owner, its group, and everyone else. The node's owner is restricted by the first set of mode bits. Other members of the node's group are restricted by the next set. Everyone else is restricted by the final set.

Let's look at some of the top-level permissions on a Mac OS X (10.2.8) system, to see how this plays out in practice:

% ls -dl /bin /sbin
drwxr-xr-x  35 root  wheel ... /bin
drwxr-xr-x  60 root  wheel ... /sbin

The first set of mode bits (rwx) allows these directories' owner (root) full access permissions. S/he can read (e.g., look up entries), write (e.g., add or remove entries), and execute (e.g., access entries) in the directory.

The following sets (r-x, r-x) restrict other users from writing, but allow read and execute access. Note, by the way, that this does not prevent someone from writing into an existing file in one of these directories, if the permissions of the file allow this.

In summary, nobody but root is able to write (e.g., create files) in any of these directories. So, "normal" users (and the programs they may accidentally or unsuspectingly) aren't able to add, remove, or rename programs.

This is very much what we'd expect in a well-designed, BSD-based system. Allowing user errors, programming mistakes, or malware to modify the system's executable code is (as myriad Microsoft-specific viruses demonstrate) a serious design error.

Unfortunately, Apple doesn't follow BSD's example everywhere; some Mac OS X system directories are all too vulnerable to the aforementioned threats:

% ls -dl /App*s /Developer /Library
drwxrwxr-x 59 root admin ... /Applications
drwxrwxr-x 14 root admin ... /Developer
drwxrwxr-x 40 root admin ... /Library

In an effort to support "ease of use", Apple's engineers have made some critical directories far more open than they would be on a conventional Unix system. As a result, most users (and any programs they may run) can add, delete, or replace any node in these directories.

In a fine example of the "Law of Unintended Consequences", several plausible decisions work together to produce this undesirable result. Here's how it goes:

  • The first account created on a new system has "admin" privileges, by default, and few users bother to set up a separate administrative account. So, most users have admin privileges.

  • Any user who has admin privileges is put into the admin group.

  • The admin group has write permission for all three of these directories, so any member of the group can add, delete, or replace any node in these directories.

  • Any program run by a user has, by default, the same permissions as the user.

Here's a simple (and safe :-) experiment you can try. Note that the system prevents you from modifying /bin, but allows you to modify /Applications:

% groups
admin
% touch /Applications /bin
touch: /bin: Permission denied

In most cases, the system asks the user for authorization before taking any unusual or suspect action. Consider the password that sudo(8) requires and the authorization dialogs that come up on occasion (e.g., when installing software).

In this case, however, no warning is given. Any user with admin privileges is quite free to drag folders in and out of /Applications; no authorization dialog will come up. Apple is quite aware of this situation; in fact, their documentation suggests a possible workaround:

    Only admins can install software in the Applications folder. You may find that you want to set up a user account that doesn't have admin privileges and use that for day-to-day tasks. That way you won't absent-mindedly delete an application by accident.

    - http://www.apple.com/macosx/learning

I strongly suspect, however, that most machine owners will never see this advice. Even if they do, they may decide to ignore it. Logging in and out of accounts is a time-consuming hassle. Panther's "fast user switching" will improve this situation, but it will still break the user's concentration.

So, most users will run as admin, expecting the Finder (and other apps) to ask them before doing anything odd. Unfortunately, the Finder won't even be called into play if a rogue application is bent on rewriting parts of the file system (e.g., installing virus code).

In summary, Apple has opened up a major security hole that is not present in Mac OS X's forebears (Unix, FreeBSD, ...). Expecting application programmers (or worse, users!) to compensate for insecure directory permissions is simply bad design. The underlying system needs to be secure; exceptions can then be made on a carefully-controlled basis.

In this case, this means that the permissions need to be fixed. Administrative actions can then be performed using "privilege elevation", under the control of authorization dialogs, etc. Administrative users are quite used to being asked for this sort of authorization, so ease of use isn't being compromised.

Note: Because the root directory allows write permission to members of the admin group, you might think that it opens up a similar security hole. However, its permissions (drwxrwxr-t) include the use of the "sticky" bit (as indicated by a "t" in the last position). This allows admin users add items to the root directory, but prevents them from removing or renaming anything that they don't own. See sticky(8) for more details.

Third-party Apps

Third-party developers have some excuse for being unfamiliar with permissions issues (classic Mac OS wasn't real big on security :-), but by now, they should have learned the basics. So, it's disturbing to find many vendors leaving their application packages wide-open to writing by any user (or program) on the system.. Try:

% cd /Applications
% ls -ld * | grep rwxrwxrwx
drwxrwxrwx  ...  Alarm Clock S.E..app
drwxrwxrwx  ...  AutoSync.app
drwxrwxrwx  ...  Classic Toggler folder
drwxrwxrwx  ...  Cocoa Browser.app
drwxrwxrwx  ...  GraphicConverter US
drwxrwxrwx  ...  Multiple Launcher X.app
drwxrwxrwx  ...  OmniDictionary.app
drwxrwxrwx  ...  OmniGraffle.app
drwxrwxrwx  ...  PTHPasteboard
drwxrwxrwx  ...  RBrowser.app
drwxrwxrwx  ...  ShuX.app
drwxrwxrwx  ...  SliMP3 Server.app
drwxrwxrwx  ...  Text Wielder
drwxrwxrwx  ...  Tri-BACKUP Folder
drwxrwxrwx  ...  VLC.app
-rwxrwxrwx  ...  iCab

Let's say that Susie downloads a nifty-looking program and runs it (e.g., from her Downloads directory). Gee, it didn't do anything. That's no fun; let's try something else... Meanwhile, the "nifty-looking program" has infected any vulnerable third-party apps. When Susie's mom runs one of these (using an admin account), the infection can spread to the rest of the system.

Can anything be done?

Some folks at Apple are very concerned by these (and other) security holes, but they (clearly) aren't in control of Apple's overall security policy. As a result, OSX is ripe for the kind of bad publicity that MS Windows has recently received.

As a developer, you have a responsibility to set appropriate permissions on your package directories. Do that, and your app won't be part of the problem. Then, file bug reports with Apple, asking them to tighten up their own security holes and give developers automated feedback and assistance in closing holes in third-party applications.

Several possibilities spring to mind. If Interface Builder can draw helpful blue lines to indicate that a widget is too near the edge of a window, why can't Xcode (or whatever tool is used for package creation) tell the developer when a package's permissions are "too near the edge"?

For that matter, why can't the installation software check for this sort of thing? And, while Disk Utility is looking for weird permissions and ownerships, why can't it look for wide-open package directories? Like that...

More generally, when you talk to Apple, tell them that you don't want security concerns to be completely overridden by "ease of use" considerations. Both are critical; a proper solution won't ignore either one.


Rich Morin has been using computers since 1970, Unix since 1983, and Mac-based Unix since 1986 (when he helped Apple create A/UX 1.0). When he isn't writing this column, Rich runs Prime Time Freeware (www.ptf.com), a publisher of books and CD-ROMs for the Free and Open Source software community. Feel free to write to Rich at rdm@ptf.com.

 
AAPL
$103.37
Apple Inc.
+0.90
MSFT
$44.68
Microsoft Corpora
-0.21
GOOG
$536.25
Google Inc.
+9.71

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Apple Security Update 2014-005 - For OS...
Apple Security Update is recommended for all users and improves the security of Mac OS X. For information on the security content of this update, please visit this website: http://support.apple.com/... Read more
EyeTV 3.6.6 - Watch and record TV on you...
EyeTV brings a rich TV experience to your Mac. Watch live TV on your Mac. Pause, rewind, and record whenever you want. EyeTV gives you powerful control over what you watch and how you watch it. Put... Read more
RapidWeaver 6.0 - Create template-based...
RapidWeaver is a next-generation Web design application to help you easily create professional-looking Web sites in minutes. No knowledge of complex code is required, RapidWeaver will take care of... Read more
NTFS 12.0.39 - Provides full read and wr...
Paragon NTFS breaks down the barriers between Windows and OS X. Paragon NTFS effectively solves the communication problems between the Mac system and NTFS, providing full read and write access to... Read more
RestoreMeNot 2.0.3 - Disable window rest...
RestoreMeNot provides a simple way to disable the window restoration for individual applications so that you can fine-tune this behavior to suit your needs. Please note that RestoreMeNot is designed... Read more
Macgo Blu-ray Player 2.10.9.1750 - Blu-r...
Macgo Mac Blu-ray Player can bring you the most unforgettable Blu-ray experience on your Mac. Overview Macgo Mac Blu-ray Player can satisfy just about every need you could possibly have in a Blu-ray... Read more
Apple iOS 8.1 - The latest version of Ap...
The latest version of iOS can be downloaded through iTunes. Apple iOS 8 comes with big updates to apps you use every day, like Messages and Photos. A whole new way to share content with your family.... Read more
TechTool Pro 7.0.5 - Hard drive and syst...
TechTool Pro is now 7, and this is the most advanced version of the acclaimed Macintosh troubleshooting utility created in its 20-year history. Micromat has redeveloped TechTool Pro 7 to be fully 64... Read more
PDFKey Pro 4.0.2 - Edit and print passwo...
PDFKey Pro can unlock PDF documents protected for printing and copying when you've forgotten your password. It can now also protect your PDF files with a password to prevent unauthorized access and/... Read more
Yasu 2.9.1 - System maintenance app; per...
Yasu was originally created with System Administrators who service large groups of workstations in mind, Yasu (Yet Another System Utility) was made to do a specific group of maintenance tasks... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

The Silent Age Episode 2 Review
The Silent Age Episode 2 Review By Jennifer Allen on October 22nd, 2014 Our Rating: :: ROUNDING THINGS OFF NICELYUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Rounding off a great point and click adventure comes The Silent Age... | Read more »
Craft Your Own Mini-Games with Papercade
Craft Your Own Mini-Games with Papercade Posted by Jessica Fisher on October 22nd, 2014 [ permalink ] iPad Only App - Designed for the iPad Scrapbookers move over, Scrapgaming is the new thing. | Read more »
Reshape Review
Reshape Review By Jennifer Allen on October 22nd, 2014 Our Rating: :: SIMPLE SHAPESUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Match triangles together to form cubes in this fast-paced and twitchy game.   | Read more »
Miika (Games)
Miika 1.0.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0.0 (iTunes) Description: Miika is a beautiful 3D puzzle game based on camera perspectives combined with the use of optical illusions. Miika challenges... | Read more »
Infuse Pro (Photography)
Infuse Pro 3.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Photography Price: $9.99, Version: 3.0 (iTunes) Description: ** All-new version 3 includes fully licensed and certified DTS® and DTS-HD® audio! ** | Read more »
Swap Heroes (Games)
Swap Heroes 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: **Half price for a limited time only** Swap Heroes is a casual turn-based strategy adventure. Form a group of heroes and guide them... | Read more »
Ghost Blade (Games)
Ghost Blade 1.1 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.1 (iTunes) Description: Get the most outstanding 3D Action Game from App Store NOW! For those who dare pursue dreams. Masterpiece of Yu Shi Game ---China... | Read more »
Fiete – A Day on a Farm Review
Fiete – A Day on a Farm Review By Amy Solomon on October 21st, 2014 Our Rating: :: A MEMORABLE EXPERIENCEUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Fiete – A day on a farm in an interactive app for young children full of... | Read more »
Tilt to Live: Gauntlet’s Revenge is Almo...
Tilt to Live: Gauntlet’s Revenge is Almost Here Posted by Jessica Fisher on October 21st, 2014 [ permalink ] One Man Left has announced the official release date of Tilt to Live: Gauntlet’s Re | Read more »
Starfly Review
Starfly Review By Jennifer Allen on October 21st, 2014 Our Rating: :: CHANGE OF PACEiPad Only App - Designed for the iPad Want a slightly different browsing experience? Starfly is a pretty personalized one but it’s also buggy.   | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

AT&T accepting preorders for new iPads fo...
AT&T Wireless is accepting preorders for the new iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3, cellular models, for $100 off MSRP with a 2-year service agreement: - 16GB iPad Air 2 WiFi + Cellular: $529.99 - 64GB... Read more
Apple offering refurbished Mac Pros for up to...
The Apple Store is offering Apple Certified Refurbished 2013 Mac Pros for up to $600 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each Mac Pro, and shipping is free. The... Read more
Select MacBook Airs $100 off MSRP, free shipp...
B&H Photo has 2014 a couple of MacBook Airs on sale for $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only. They also include free copies of Parallels Desktop and LoJack for... Read more
13-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro on sale for $100 o...
B&H Photo has the 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pro on sale for $999.99 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $100 off MSRP. Read more
Strong iPhone, Mac And App Store Sales Drive...
Apple on Monday announced financial results for its fiscal 2014 fourth quarter ended September 27, 2014. The Company posted quarterly revenue of $42.1 billion and quarterly net profit of $8.5 billion... Read more
Apple Posts How-To For OS X Recovery
OS X 10.7 Lion and later include OS X Recovery. This feature includes all of the tools you need to reinstall OS X, repair your disk, and even restore from a Time Machine backup. OS X Recovery... Read more
Mac OS X Versions (Builds) Supported By Vario...
Apple Support has posted a handy resource explaining which Mac OS X versions (builds) originally shipped with or are available for your computer via retail discs, downloads, or Software Update. Apple... Read more
Deals on 2011 13-inch MacBook Airs, from $649
Daily Steals has the Mid-2011 13″ 1.7GHz i5 MacBook Air (4GB/128GB) available for $699 with a 90 day warranty. The Mid-2011 13″ 1.7GHz i5 MacBook Air (4GB/128GB SSD) is available for $649 at Other... Read more
2013 15-inch 2.0GHz Retina MacBook Pro availa...
B&H Photo has leftover previous-generation 15″ 2.0GHz Retina MacBook Pros now available for $1599 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $400 off original MSRP. B&H... Read more
Updated iPad Prices
We’ve updated our iPad Air Price Tracker and our iPad mini Price Tracker with the latest information on prices and availability from Apple and other resellers, including the new iPad Air 2 and the... Read more

Jobs Board

Senior Event Manager, *Apple* Retail Market...
…This senior level position is responsible for leading and imagining the Apple Retail Team's global event strategy. Delivering an overarching brand story; in-store, Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple (...
**Job Summary** The ASC is an Apple employee who serves as an Apple brand ambassador and influencer in a Reseller's store. The ASC's role is to grow Apple Read more
Project Manager / Business Analyst, WW *Appl...
…a senior project manager / business analyst to work within our Worldwide Apple Fulfillment Operations and the Business Process Re-engineering team. This role will work Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
…customers purchase our products, you're the one who helps them get more out of their new Apple technology. Your day in the Apple Store is filled with a range of Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.