15 easy fixes for Mac security risks

How safe is your Mac? Maybe not as safe as you think. Here are some quick ways to beef up its security.

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Set a firmware password

The biggest security risks occur if your Mac is stolen or physically compromised. Even if thieves can't log into your account, they can gain access to the data on your Mac using one of the many special start-up modes built into all Macs, such as booting from an install DVD and resetting your password, using Target Disk Mode to make your Mac act as an external hard drive, or booting into the Unix-style Single User Mode.

You can, however, place a firmware password on your Mac. This password is written into the firmware chips on the Mac's motherboard using either the Open Firmware standard on PowerPC Macs or Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) on Intel Macs. Regardless of platform, the free tool from Apple for implementing a firmware password is called the Open Firmware Password Utility. Apple provides complete steps for setting a firmware password on its support site.

If you or anyone else tries to use a special start-up mode, the user will be required to enter the firmware password. This can significantly secure personal, business or educational Macs against tampering. However, be warned that if you forget a firmware password, there is no way to reset or remove it.

Use the Security pane options in System Preferences

The Security pane in System Preferences offers Mac users a number of simple but powerful options for securing their systems -- requiring a password for waking from sleep or a screensaver, disabling automatic log-in (and thus requiring authentication at start-up), requiring an admin account username and password to modify settings in System Preferences, automatically logging out after a period of inactivity, and disabling the use of Apple's infrared remotes with the computer or pairing the computer to only one specific remote.

Make use of Security pane options

Make use of Security pane options.

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Each of these can go a long way to securing access to your data if someone has physical access to your Mac. This is particularly important if you have a Mac laptop or are working with a Mac that offers any form of public access.

The option to use secure virtual memory is also located here. When secure virtual memory is enabled, the swap file that a Mac uses to store running data if it begins to run short of RAM will be encrypted. This drastically reduces the chance that if a Mac is physically compromised, any data for active applications or processes will be retrievable. This is important because virtual memory may contain sensitive information that can be used to compromise a Mac even if data on a drive is secure.

Disable unused network interfaces

If you look in the Network pane of System Preferences, you'll notice that most Macs include multiple network interfaces, such as Ethernet, AirPort/802.11, FireWire and Bluetooth. In theory, any active network interface could be used to access your Mac in a remote attack -- particularly wireless technologies, which don't require a physical connection to a network.

Disable unused network interfaces

Disable unused network interfaces.

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For this reason, it's a good idea to disable any interfaces you're not using to connect to a network or the Internet. To do so, launch System Preferences, and select the Network pane. Select each interface you want to disable, and for each one, select the button that looks like a gear at the bottom of the interface list, and choose Make Inactive from the pop-up menu.

This disables the interface, but doesn't delete it -- so you can easily change it back to Make Active to restore access to the interface.

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