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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Disable Bonjour

Bonjour is Apple's zero-configuration networking system that allows Macs (and PCs and iPhones) to automatically broadcast resources they are sharing over a network and to discover resources shared by other devices. Bonjour can be used for file sharing, printing (many printers ship with Bonjour built in), sharing of iTunes libraries, instant messaging without the use of an IM service, and many other things.

Since Bonjour works by your Mac broadcasting its presence and its available shared resources, it can easily alert malicious users not only to its location, but also to vectors that can be used to target it for attack. Most applications that support Bonjour also allow you to disable Bonjour broadcasting, though you may need to dig around in their Preferences to find the option.

As with sharing services, if you don't need Bonjour for an application, turn it off. If you want to see which applications on your Mac are actively advertising themselves using Bonjour, check out the open-source Bonjour Browser, which lists the various Bonjour services actively running at any one time. You can use this to determine which applications to disable Bonjour support in. (One of the most common is iTunes, which uses Bonjour to share libraries, locate/sync to Apple TVs, and remotely control Apple's Remote application for the iPhone and iPod Touch.)

You can even go a step further from the command line, where you can disable Bonjour as a whole. Ali Karbassi provides instructions on his blog.

Keep your software up to date

The most important security option available to Mac users is keeping software up to date. This applies to Mac OS X itself, Apple-branded applications and any third-party apps on your system. Maintaining an up-to-date operating system and application set means that publicly known vulnerabilities are more likely to have been patched in the software on your system.

The Mac's built-in Software Update feature checks for updates to OS X and Apple applications on a weekly basis by default, and it notifies you when updates are available -- which lets you choose whether to download and install them all immediately or to wait until a later time.

Software Update settings

Software Update settings.

Click to view larger image.

You can also choose to check monthly or daily, or disable automatic checking altogether (not recommended), using the Startup Disk pane in System Preferences. Another option is to have critical updates such as security updates downloaded automatically; you'll be informed when the download has been completed and is ready for installation.

The Software Update pane also lets you check for updates at any time (which can also be done via the Apple menu) and view a list of updates that have been installed on your Mac.

Most third-party apps include an option to check for updates each time they are launched. This should be left enabled because updates often improve performance, stability and security. VersionTracker Pro ($30 for up to three Macs) and the free App Update Dashboard widget are two utilities that can help ensure that all applications on your Mac are up to date.

Additional resources

Although this article covers the most common ways in which Macs are left vulnerable, it is by no means a complete guide to Mac security. More information is available from the following sources:

Correction: The article originally referred to the "iServices.a" malware as a virus; it is a Trojan.

Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. You can find more information about him at RyanFaas.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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