Security: Leopard vs. Vista
A security expert revisits an earlier examination he made of the relative security of Mac Tiger and Windows XP.
Again, however, Ill caveat my statements by saying that I didnt say that Leopard (that is, version 10.5 of Apples OS X) is more secure than Microsofts Vista. What I said was that Im more secure on a Mac, and I truly believe it.
Before I go and re-visit the list of issues that I believe are at the heart of my rationale, lets take a moment to explore some of the underlying major changes in the two systems versus their predecessors, Windows XP and OS X Tiger.
Probably the biggest single change in both systems is a fundamental shift in how they protect users and their data. Previously, the operating systems largely focused their security controls on the data/file entitiesfor example, a file might be readable to a group, but only read/writable to its owner. In Vista and Leopard, on the other hand, there are now security controls over user and application actionsfor example, one application might be allowed to open an outbound network data session, while another is additionally allowed to accept inbound network data sessions.
Whats more, even though both operating systems have relatively rich sets of user account controls for permissions and such, these new controls on user actions happen largely at a user level. In fact, both operating systems seem to me to be moving away from the old school model of having an administrator account for system administrative purposes and user account(s) for day-to-day system usage.
Indeed, ordinary users can, in most cases, install software on the system once they have confirmed to the system that they want to and that they know the administrative password to do so.
This really is a fundamental shift in the usability of both operating systems, and I suspect they did it to make things easier and still (hopefully) adequately secure.
Perhaps its just me, but Im not so convinced this is a step forward. Now, Ill be the first to admit that the old admin/user model wasnt functioning well in either operating system previously. But, Im also convinced that the general end-users have demonstrated historically that they arent very good at making this type of security decision.
Im reminded frequently of the old adage, give a user the choice between security and dancing pigs, and theyll go with dancing pigs every single time. Obviously, this adage is tongue in cheek, but the point hits pretty close to home.
Giving the end users the equivalent of discretionary administrative control is a recipe that is more likely to fail than succeed.
With that out of the way, lets revisit the list of issues from my XP vs. Tiger comparison.
Familiarity with security mechanisms. Previously, I said, One of the things that lured me over to OS X from Windows XP and Linux (but thats another topic for discussion) is that under OS Xs pretty GUI lies BSD UNIX, for all intents and purposes. Ive been using UNIX systems since the early 1980s and Im very comfortable there, right down to understanding the underlying security mechanisms quite thoroughly.
This statement remains true today in the Leopard vs. Vista realm, without a doubt.
The waters have gotten somewhat muddied, however, with the advent of the more user-oriented security model I describe above. The line between administrative and non-privileged has certainly blurred.
Qualitative score: OS X gets a B- while Windows gets a C-.