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Apple's Macs Hit By Malware; Are iPhones Next?

Originally published on June 6, 2011 3:36 pm

Apple's computers have been able to avoid most serious hacking attacks, but that era may be over. As Steve Jobs and his colleagues prepared for this week's developers conference, the company was also taking steps to stop a malware "phishing" program.

The ploy, says technology columnist Rich Jaroslovsky of Bloomberg News, uses an infected website to install a piece of software on Apple computers. The software then pops up a new window, with an urgent message about a security vulnerability.

As Jaroslovsky tells NPR's Renee Montagne, the rogue window includes "a scary-sounding message that tells you that your computer is infected, and that you need software to eradicate the infection — and to please give your credit card number."

While most people would not be gullible enough to do that, enough users fall for the phishing ploy, often called "scareware," that it can pay off for the perpetrators.

Text in the pop-up window refers to a bogus security program, with names like MacDefender, MacProtector, or MacSecurity — all "deeply ironic" names, Jaroslovsky says, for malware meant to steal financial information.

The phishing attack can be seen as an acknowledgment of the growing popularity of Apple's devices, Jaroslovsky says. For years, most malware attacks focused on Windows computers, which have long dominated the market.

"In some ways, it's almost a rite of passage for the Mac" he says, "because it says that it's now mainstream enough so that the bad guys are targeting it."

And because Apple's various devices — from computers to iPhones to iPads — use elements of the same software, it's not yet certain how easily a malware infection might spread.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs is expected to unveil the company's latest operating systems — Lion for Mac computers, and iOS 5 for mobile devices — at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco Monday.

"The kernel of the Mac operating system, the sort of core of it, is also found in Apple mobile devices," Jaroslovsky says. "So, a successful attack on the Mac theoretically could become something that would also affect mobile devices."

Of course, Apple's notoriously tight control of its App Store, which acts as a gateway for software to reach its mobile devices, is one more layer of protection for its customers.

But Jaroslovsky says that the lesson to be learned from the recent malware episode is that "it should be a wakeup call to consumers, to be extra vigilant, not only with their Windows computers, which they already know have issues, but essentially with any device that they use that connects to the Internet."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And thank you for joining us again.

MONTAGNE: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about this attack. What form did it take?

MONTAGNE: Well, this is a category known as malware. And in this case what happens is that when you visit an infected website, the site installs a program on your computer that opens a window with a scary-sounding message that tells you that your computer is infected and that you need software to eradicate the infection and to please give your credit card number. So what it is is a category known broadly as phishing. And what they're really after is your credit card information, which they can then put to various nefarious purposes.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, people are savvy, often, and don't give out their credit cards, but just enough of them give them out for this to work.

MONTAGNE: Exactly. And what's interesting about this is that up until now this has been a fairly common sort of thing in the Windows world, and after all, most computers in the world are still Windows. But as the Mac has grown, particularly in the consumer market, individual don't have corporate IT departments to warn them don't do this, and so just enough of them are doing it so that it's become a real problem. And in some ways it's almost a rite of passage for the Mac because it says that it's now mainstream enough so that the bad guys are targeting it.

MONTAGNE: And the bad guys at this point, do we know who they might be?

MONTAGNE: We really don't know much about who they might be. At least if people, if security experts do they're not yet telling us. These programs open up with names like MacDefender. There's a variant called MacProtector. And, of course, the names themselves are deeply ironic because the last thing that they want to do is protect you.

MONTAGNE: And what does this mean for Apple mobile devices, you know, the iPhone?

MONTAGNE: The kernel of the Mac operating system, the sort of core of it, is also found in Apple mobile devices. And so, a successful attack on the Mac theoretically could become something that could also affect mobile devices. Now because Apple runs its App Store so tightly and you really can't download anything on to the mobile device that hasn't gone through Apple's approval process, there's a certain built-in extra layer of protection there. But it does point up, and if nothing else it's highly symbolic of the fact that nothing is safe.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, in that whole that you're just speaking of, it's iPad, iPod Touch. I mean it's not even just them. I mean that's a big universe, isn't it at this point?

MONTAGNE: It's a very big universe of i-devices. I think right now Apple still has something like 90 percent of the tablet market and, of course, it's growing very, very rapidly. But in addition, it also points up the fact that you've got this additional large universe of Android devices which don't even have the level of protection perhaps that the Apple products do. So it basically it should be a wakeup call to consumers to be extra vigilant, not only with their Windows computers, which they already know have issues, but essentially with any device that they use that connects to the Internet.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.

MONTAGNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.