Mac Daniel's Advice

Is Your Mac Secure?

Charlie Ruggiero - 2002.03.06

This article is meant for beginning users who are worried about security on their Mac OS 9.x or earlier system. For ease of use I have separated the information into four sections.

Data Security

It is very difficult to completely secure data on a Mac OS 9.x and lower computer. Macintosh computers running OS 9.x and lower will probably never be run in a high security facility for this very reason, but there are a few things you can do to stop snoopers.

Mac OS 9.x offers built-in file encryption. It is easy to use and is secure enough to stop most people from reading your data. The only problem with the built in encryption software is it will not encrypt folders or groups of files. To get around this compress the data (using StuffIt) and encrypt the compressed file.

Under older operating systems you can use something like Stuffit Deluxe to add a password to a compressed file. This security is not as good as OS 9's encryption software, but it will definitely keep snoopers out. There is also shareware encryption software available for older operating systems.

For systemwide light security there is a montage of screen saver-based password protection, startup password protection, and even software that allows you to make certain files invisible. These should never be considered for high-security.

For systemwide heavy security there is software that modifies the boot sector of your hard drive to not allow booting or access to the drive until a password is entered. Think of it as a mini-program that runs before the computer starts the OS. This prevents people from accessing your data even if they boot from a CD. This does not protect against the hard drive being erased.

Before applying any kind of password protection, remember what you used for a password. [Don't laugh - I once had a coworker lose an entire partition full of files when he was unable to recreate the password he had created. dk] There is basically no way to gain access to an encrypted file if you don't have the password. Make it something you can easily remember - but not so easy it can be guessed. Examples of bad passwords that everyone uses (but shouldn't):

password, god, <your name>, <a relatives name>, computer, <company name>, <a pets name>, macintosh, mac, <your social security num>, <your birthday, family member's birthday>

Basically any password that can be obtained by simple research is bad. You should avoid dictionary names as well. Some good passwords contain at least 1 number, one capitol, and one non-letter/number character. Like:

VdeF13*jJ

This is extremely hard to remember, but if you create a phrase it is easier:

TcioI2c = The cat i own Is 2 cute

Easy to remember, hard to guess.

Internet Security

Currently there is a huge buzz about firewalls and people hacking into your computer from the Internet. It is almost silly for Mac OS 9.x users to worry about Internet security. What you do not need to do is go out and buy a firewall or some sort of software solution unless you are running a server. People running a server probably know about the security risks and have taken steps to cover it, so I will not go into that right now.

The biggest risks for Mac OS 9.x users are through file sharing, Web sharing, and third party applications opening up your computer to the Internet. File sharing should be off unless you are using it for something, do not leave it on if you do not use it. If you need it, make sure it is using password protection for all users. Never have "guest" access, as a password is not required for access to your computer. Make sure your password is hard enough to not be easily guessed.

Turn off Web sharing if you do not use it. If you need Web sharing, make sure the documents included in the root directory are not your whole hard drive. Even though it's read-only access, someone may be able to read a document you want secret.

Never store passwords on your hard drive in a file unless that file is encrypted with a good password.

The next threat is from third party software that opens up your hard drive to other computers on the Internet. Programs like LimeWire, Napster, and other point-to-point file sharing programs all allow access to a specific directory of your hard drive. Make sure you do not make that directory your entire hard drive, or include aliases to data outside of that directory. While I do not know of any security risk besides what I just mentioned, I would still recommend shutting down those types of programs when you leave the computer unattended.

Virus Related

A lot of people using Macs don't worry about viruses. There are very few Macintosh viruses compared to the Windows world, and because of that many people have decided not to purchase virus software. I recommend you purchase virus software for two reasons:

  1. You can spread viruses unknowingly to other Windows users even though you see no signs of virus activity.
  2. Viruses written in the early 90s are making a comeback because fewer people are using virus protection.

The main concern is macro viruses on Macs. They may not always work right on the Mac, but they can cause some annoying side effects. One problem you may see is Word constantly wanting to save, even if you made no changes. Saves may take a long time. Text may not appear the way you thought it would, and a number of other annoying minor problems. Get virus protection to stop these problems and to prevent viruses from spreading.

As stated in number two, some viruses have been popping up recently that were meant for early System 7 operating systems, but the still effect computers with OS 9.x because of backwards compatibility. Most notable the 666 virus has made a comeback, causing damage to various system files, applications, and documents. This virus, written a long time ago, still plagues us today because people are not using virus software. Another annoying virus that still shows up is the autostart worm.

Get virus software and keep it up to date for both your computer's security and the sanity of Windows users and the world.

Physical Security

Having your data secure on your computer is good, but if someone steals the entire computer you are not only loosing all that data, but giving the thief a chance to spend as much time as they need to break through the security.

The first step is to determine how to secure the computer as a whole. Most Macs have a security hole where you can insert a tab and attach a cable to it. This is useful to stop a casual thief, but bolt cutters can get through the tab in seconds.

The tower G4 and Blue and White Macs have a lock that keeps the door shut if a bar is pulled out and a padlock is put through the bar's hole. Tabs, padlocks, and cables are great if you are in a higher security area, but they should not be completely relied on for physical security. If you have sensitive data, the computer should be stored and used in a limited access room. The room should not have universal key access. You should backup regularly to ensure you still have the data if your computer is stolen.

Some Macs may be vulnerable to component theft. Easy access to the motherboard is great for upgrades - and also for theft if someone just wants to steal memory, hard drives, or even PCI cards. Most vulnerable are the Power Mac G4 and Blue and White G3 towers. They luckily have the security bar mentioned above, which should be used.

Other computers, like slot-loading iMacs, are vulnerable to having memory stolen. While it is hard to get to other components, there is almost no way of stopping someone from stealing the memory. You should take a look at your computer and see how easy it is to get the case off. Then try to think of some ways to prevent people from stealing components if your computer is open to the public or in an open office setting.

In case your computer is stolen, I recommend doing two things: Label your computer in some way. Etching is good, but it could lower the resale value (and void the warranty if done in the wrong spot). If you don't want to etch, maybe get a sticker with your name, address, and phone number and place it in a non-obvious spot. Stick it on a non-removable item like the inside of the case wall.

The second thing is to write down the computer's serial number, installed components (memory size, hard drive size, video card), and even the ethernet hardware address, which you can obtain by clicking on the Info button in the TCP/IP control panel. These items will allow you to identify the computer if it's recovered.

Keep copies of receipts past the warranty period for insurance purposes. Check with your insurance company to make sure the computer is covered if stolen. Many insurers do not cover computers unless you specifically add them to the policy, especially laptops. They will want to know the serial number, model number, price, and specifications of the computer.

What to do if the computer is stolen

Always file a police report and give them as much information as possible (like the serial number). There is a chance the computer will show up somewhere. Check local pawnshops for your computer. If a pawnshop is honest, they will have taken information from the seller such as a driver's license number, phone number, address, and even fingerprints. Call the insurance company and give them the information, including the police report number.

If the data is extremely important (and worth more than the computer) offer a reward for equal or more than the computer is worth and specify a no questions asked policy for safe return.

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