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.

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Bookends 12.7.8 - Reference management a...
Bookends is a full-featured bibliography/reference and information-management system for students and professionals. Bookends uses the cloud to sync reference libraries on all the Macs you use.... Read more
VirtualBox 5.1.14 - x86 virtualization s...
VirtualBox is a family of powerful x86 virtualization products for enterprise as well as home use. Not only is VirtualBox an extremely feature rich, high performance product for enterprise customers... Read more
FileZilla 3.24.0 - Fast and reliable FTP...
FileZilla (ported from Windows) is a fast and reliable FTP client and server with lots of useful features and an intuitive interface. Version 3.24.0: New The context menu for remote file search... Read more
BusyContacts 1.1.6 - Fast, efficient con...
BusyContacts is a contact manager for OS X that makes creating, finding, and managing contacts faster and more efficient. It brings to contact management the same power, flexibility, and sharing... Read more
BusyCal 3.1.4 - Powerful calendar app wi...
BusyCal is an award-winning desktop calendar that combines personal productivity features for individuals with powerful calendar sharing capabilities for families and workgroups. Its unique features... Read more
Duplicate Annihilator 5.8.3 - Find and d...
Duplicate Annihilator takes on the time-consuming task of comparing the images in your iPhoto library using effective algorithms to make sure that no duplicate escapes. Duplicate Annihilator detects... Read more
MarsEdit 3.7.10 - Quick and convenient b...
MarsEdit is a blog editor for OS X that makes editing your blog like writing email, with spell-checking, drafts, multiple windows, and even AppleScript support. It works with with most blog services... Read more
WALTR 2 2.0.9 - $39.95
WALTR 2 helps you wirelessly drag-and-drop any music, ringtones, videos, PDF, and ePub files onto your iPhone, iPad, or iPod without iTunes. It is the second major version of Softorino's critically-... Read more
Paperless 2.3.9 - $49.95
Paperless is a digital documents manager. Remember when everyone talked about how we would soon be a paperless society? Now it seems like we use paper more than ever. Let's face it - we need and we... Read more
Adobe After Effects CC 2017 14.1 - Creat...
After Effects CC 2017 is available as part of Adobe Creative Cloud for as little as $19.99/month (or $9.99/month if you're a previous After Effects customer). The new, more connected After Effects CC... Read more

Super Mario Run dashes onto Android in M...
Super Mario Run was one of the biggest mobile launches in 2016 before it was met with a lukewarm response by many. While the game itself plays a treat, it's pretty hard to swallow the steep price for the full game. With that said, Android users... | Read more »
WarFriends Beginner's Guide: How to...
Chillingo's new game, WarFriends, is finally available world wide, and so far it's a refreshing change from common mobile game trends. The game's a mix of tower defense, third person shooter, and collectible card game. There's a lot to unpack here... | Read more »
Super Gridland (Entertainment)
Super Gridland 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Entertainment Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Match. Build. Survive. "exquisitely tuned" - Rock Paper Shotgun No in-app purches, and no ads! | Read more »
Red's Kingdom (Games)
Red's Kingdom 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Mad King Mac has kidnapped your father and stolen your golden nut! Solve puzzles and battle goons as you explore and battle your... | Read more »
Turbo League Guide: How to tame the cont...
| Read more »
Fire Emblem: Heroes coming to Google Pla...
Nintendo gave us our first look at Fire Emblem: Heroes, the upcoming mobile Fire Emblem game the company hinted at last year. Revealed at the Fire Emblem Direct event held today, the game will condense the series' tactical RPG combat into bite-... | Read more »
ReSlice (Music)
ReSlice 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Music Price: $9.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Audio Slice Machine Slice your audio samples with ReSlice and create flexible musical atoms which can be triggered by MIDI notes or... | Read more »
Stickman Surfer rides in with the tide t...
Stickson is back and this time he's taken up yet another extreme sport - surfing. Stickman Surfer is out this Thursday on both iOS and Android, so if you've been following the other Stickman adventures, you might be interested in picking this one... | Read more »
Z-Exemplar (Games)
Z-Exemplar 1.4 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $3.99, Version: 1.4 (iTunes) Description: | Read more »
5 dastardly difficult roguelikes like th...
Edmund McMillen's popular roguelike creation The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth has finally crawled onto mobile devices. It's a grotesque dual-stick shooter that tosses you into an endless, procedurally generated basement as you, the pitiable Isaac,... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Twelve South Releases RelaxedLeather Cases fo...
Inspired by the laid-back luxury of burnished leather boots and crafted in rich tones of taupe, herb and marsala, RelaxedLeather cases deliver smart, easy protection for the iPhone 7. Each genuine... Read more
Week’s Best Deal: New 2016 13-inch 2.0GHz Mac...
Amazon has the new 2016 13″ 2.0GHz non-Touch Bar MacBook Pros on sale for a limited time for $225 off MSRP including free shipping: - 13″ 2.0GHz MacBook Pro, Space Gray (MLL42LL/A): $1274.99 $225 off... Read more
Back in stock: Apple refurbished Mac minis fr...
Apple has Certified Refurbished Mac minis available starting at $419. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each mini, and shipping is free: - 1.4GHz Mac mini: $419 $80 off MSRP - 2.6GHz Mac... Read more
Apple Ranked ‘Most Intimate Brand’
The top ranked ‘”intimate” brands continued to outperform the S&P and Fortune 500 indices in revenue and profit over the past 10 years, according to MBLM’s Brand Intimacy 2017 Report, the largest... Read more
B-Eng introduces SSD Health Check for Mac OS
Fehraltorf, Switzerland based independant Swiss company- B-Eng has announced the release and immediate availability of SSD Health Check 1.0, the company’s new hard drive utility for Mac OS X. As the... Read more
Apple’s Education discount saves up to $300 o...
Purchase a new Mac or iPad using Apple’s Education Store and take up to $300 off MSRP. All teachers, students, and staff of any educational institution qualify for the discount. Shipping is free: -... Read more
4-core 3.7GHz Mac Pro on sale for $2290, save...
Guitar Center has the 3.7GHz 4-core Mac Pro (MD253LL/A) on sale for $2289.97 including free shipping or free local store pickup (if available). Their price is a $710 savings over standard MSRP for... Read more
128GB Apple iPad Air 2, refurbished, availabl...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 128GB iPad Air 2s WiFis available for $419 including free shipping. That’s an $80 savings over standard MSRP for this model. A standard Apple one-year warranty is... Read more
13-inch 2.7GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale for...
B&H Photo has the 2015 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina Apple MacBook Pro on sale for $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY tax only: - 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina MacBook Pro (MF839LL/A): $... Read more
Laptop Market – Flight To Quality? – The ‘Boo...
Preliminary quarterly PC shipments data released by Gartner Inc. last week reveal an interesting disparity between sales performance of major name PC vendors as opposed to that of less well-known... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* & PC Desktop Support Technician...
Apple & PC Desktop Support Technician job in Manhattan, NY Introduction: We have immediate job openings for several Desktop Support Technicians with one of our most Read more
Senior Workstation Administrator - *Apple*...
…with extraordinary HR. QualificationsJOB SUMMARY/OVERVIEWThe Senior Workstation Administrator - Apple supports the mission of TriNet by providing advanced level Read more
Intermediate *Apple* macOS Systems Integrat...
**Position Summary:** SC3 is actively seeking an Intermediate Apple macOS systems integration administrator that will be responsible for providing Apple Mac Read more
*Apple* & PC Desktop Support Technician...
Apple & PC Desktop Support Technician job in Los Angeles, CA Introduction: We have immediate job openings for several Desktop Support Technicians with one of our Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions - Apple,...
SalesSpecialist - Retail Customer Service and SalesTransform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.