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Apple is wrong to try and cage its Lion

02 May 2012

What's the best way to keep a Lion safe? Put it in a cage? It's a quandary that gets many conservationists in a lather, as they try to balance the majestic creature's need for wide open spaces with a desire to protect it from those with malicious aims. It's a dilemma that may have relevance for that titan of the tech scene, Apple.

Apple has its own neat ideas about how to protect its Lion - the forthcoming version of its OS X operating system. Its approach is the suitably monikered Gatekeeper, a system that can authenticate applications, thereby protecting users from the threat of installing one that is malicious.

And what has this got to do with cages? Well, the clues are right there in the promotional material that Apple has been producing. Apple wants the world to know that the safest place to get apps for your Mac is via its Mac App Store, where Gatekeeper will ensure that only approved apps get through.

It's a security model that Apple has successfully piloted with its wildly popular iPhones, where users can bask in the comforting thought that there's no chance of them installing malware because of Apple's iron grip over what can be installed on the devices.

It's perhaps not too much of a leap to suggest that Apple could have a similar vision for its OS X line: if it can convince users to restrict what gets installed on their machines to Apple-approved apps only, then hey presto, a new walled garden device.

Gatekeeper has won few plaudits from the vested interests of the security vendors. Here you have a group of companies facing a stomach-churning realisation. Their cash cow - the Windows-based PC - is not selling like it used to. Other devices, such as Apple's iPhone, have no great need for security products.

Little surprise then that their marketing message in recent months has been to stress the growing threat malware poses to Android-based smartphones or Apple's Mac lines.

But while it's worth acknowledging that security vendors are likely to hold bias views, they do have a point when it comes to Gatekeeper. It might do a great job of protecting unwary users from downloading rogue apps, but it does little to address vulnerabilities in already-installed apps. As the Flashback Trojan has clearly shown, Apple doesn't have a great record here.

While Apple eventually issued a patch, thousands of Mac users were unwiitingly infected by Flashback, which targeted a vulernability in Java.

And what about the enterprise? While business use of iPhones and iPads has soared, OS X still makes little impact in the enterprise, and it's hard to see Gatekeeper changing this much.

Some system administrators may like Gatekeeper's approach of restricting the applications users can install. But where this is a key issue for firms, the likelihood is that they already have tools in place to enforce this.

For everyone else, past history shows that for multi-purpose devices, users like their freedoms. That may result in a weakening of security, as too few users understand the security implications of their actions. But better that than swapping freedom for a cage.

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