Apple quietly lifted part of Steve Jobs' famous reality distortion field on Sunday, switching out a statement that claimed its Mac computers were completely immune to viruses with a less-forward statement: It's built to be safe.
Security company Sophos highlighted the changes in its Naked Security blog.
Andy Hertzfeld, a former Apple engineer currently with Google, explains that Jobs' reality distortion field was a confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand. Spin played a big role in Apple's marketing strategy, but Apple has little to stand on by calling its Macs completely watertight when, simply, they are not.
Ripple Effects Of The Flashback Trojan
Apple loved to blast Windows for being so susceptible to viruses. Remember all of those TV ads with John Hodgman as the PC and Justin Long as the Mac? Microsoft had its Schadenfreude moment in early April, when a Russian antivirus company discovered that hundreds of thousands of Macs were infected with a variant of the Flashback trojan horse, which reportedly was able to exploit several vulnerabilities in Java, allowing itself to install onto the user's browser without any intervention or action on the user's part.
The Flashback Trojan also could create a false Apple-signed Java certificate, which tricked users into clicking the Continue button to let the trojan infect the host further, sucking personal data including usernames and passwords for Google, PayPal and eBay into the cloud.
According to Intego's security blog:
It is worth noting that Flashback.G will not install if VirusBarrier X6 is present, or if a number of other security programs are installed on the Mac in question. It does this to avoid detection. It seems that the malware writers feel it is best to avoid Macs where the malware might be detected, and focus on the many that aren't protected.
Apple released two Java security patches (2012-001 and 2012-002) and a general fix (2012-003) via the Software Update application that following week, which were all said to remove the most common variants of the Flashback malware. They also promised to disable the automatic execution of Java applets, which could be re-enabled within the Java Preferences application. Eventually, the numbers dwindled until May, when the malware was hardly a story anymore.
The Flashback Trojan was hardly a failure on Apple's part. The virus was largely eliminated in about a month's time, but it was difficult because the malware had so many variants. Most Macs have been relieved of the Flashback Trojan by now, but users will not forget this, hence Apple's PR shift.
Beefing Up Protection in Mountain Lion
Apple can no longer say its Macs are perfect, but the company is making great strides to improve the honesty of its PR while making users and developers feel safe all the same.
In the company's next major software update for Macs coming in July -- also known as Mac OS X Mountain Lion -- Apple has introduced an intimidating new security feature called Gatekeeper. Apple wants its users to feel secure in any applications they download, so to achieve this level of safety, Apple has created the Developer Program, which endows each developer with a unique ID and digital signature on their Apps. The Developer Program aims to place more responsibility on the developers to keep their software clean, but users can also make sure no apps are downloaded with that digital certification. Of course, Apple has made it so if the preferences are too restrictive, users can temporarily override their own settings.
This new Gatekeeper feature will also allow Mac users to control what apps they install and use. Apple has added more optional security features in Mountain Lion, like disabling automatic login and requiring passwords after leaving the screen saver or sleep mode, but it's all in the name of giving the user more control over their privacy and security.
Apple strives for perfection, but stating something is perfect when it isn't is ultimately bad for PR and company morale. Jobs used his reality distortion field to rally the troops, so to speak, but Mountain Lion will ensure Apple can tout its closed, highly-secure operating system for the foreseeable future in a much more realistic sense. Just because a product isn't impervious to sickness doesn't mean it isn't insanely great.