Context is a funny thing. In most segments of society, Apple is seen as an exemplary company, with an unrivaled record of innovation, much-admired ad campaigns and a stock price that is the envy of every company not named Google. But in the security community, Apple is regarded with some combination of disbelief, confusion and the disdain that once was reserved for Microsoft.
By all external indications, Apple officials have never much cared about this. And by external indications, I mean the fact that the company’s executives and security engineers don’t discuss the security of their products, how they handle vulnerability reports, what they’re working on for future releases or virtually anything else. It’s just not done. Apple has been the technology Bartleby, answering all inquiries about security with the equivalent of, “I would prefer not to.”
There have been some signs in the last couple of years, however, that Apple is putting more emphasis on security, at least in some areas. The iPhone has been the mobile platform most resistant to attack thus far, thanks to the inclusion of some anti-exploit technologies and a sandbox in iOS. But much of that success can be attributed to Apple’s philosophy of only allowing apps from the App Store to run on iPhones and reviewing each of those apps before it’s allowed inside the fence. That policy can be seen in one of two ways: as a method for preventing malicious apps showing up on users’ phones; or as a method for locking users into the Apple hardware-software ecosystem.
The prevailing, cynical view is that the latter scenario is what’s happening. This holds that Apple is only interested in security insofar as it supports the company’s supposed goal of limiting user choice. If reviewing apps and requiring developers to sign those apps and include a sandbox in each app is a positive for security, that’s great, but the main goal is ensuring that users continue to only get their apps from the App Store. In that model, an exclusive app store means a huge potential customer base for developers, which means more developers will be attracted to the app store, which means a wider variety of apps for users, which means users are more attracted to the Apple platform.
This has been tremendously successful for Apple, obviously. One need only look at the company’s financial results to see that. (That’s billion, with a B, in those results.) Now, Apple is planning to bring this model to the desktop, via the Mac App Store and its new Gatekeeper security technology in OS X Mountain Lion. How you experience this plan has much to do with your feelings on Apple’s motives and intentions.
The inclusion of Gatekeeper in OS X will have the immediate effect of allowing users to restrict which apps they want to run on their machines. They can do this by choosing to allow only software from the official Mac App Store to run, allowing apps from the App Store and those by identified Apple developers to run or by allowing anything to run. Those are the three choices.
The most restrictive setting will give users the same kind of protection from malicious OS X apps that they enjoy now on the iPhone platform. It’s hard to get a malicious or Trojaned app through the review process and into the app store, and it’s likely to get harder over time. Users still will have the option of manually approving individual apps, but they won’t run by default as they do now. That’s not an option that iPhone users–at least those who haven’t jailbroken their phones–have. All software for the iPhone has to come from the iTunes App Store.
The next step for Apple with the Mac App Store could well be for it to move in this same direction, restricting the software on Macs to only those apps that have come from the app store. Apple has not said anything like this publicly, nor are they likely to, unless and until the decision is finalized. But it’s entirely possible that Gatekeeper is the prelude to such a move, and it likely would be a good one for users, in terms of security. Protecting users from themselves is important. And having someone review an app for malicious content and requiring developers to sign their creations and be held accountable for them are all good things.
Such a move also would be decried as the act of a company hell bent on protecting its market share and influence over users. It would be the kind of move that made Microsoft so many enemies–and so much money–in the 1990s and early 2000s.
And it would have the effect of leaving Mac users with an unpalatable choice: security or freedom.