PSA: Apple isn’t really patching all the safety holes in older variations of macOS

Enlarge / The default wallpaper for macOS Catalina.


Information is making the rounds right now, each through a write-up in Vice and a post from Google’s Threat Analysis Group, of a privilege escalation bug in macOS Catalina that was being utilized by “a well-resourced” and “possible state-backed” group to focus on guests to pro-democracy web sites in Hong Kong. Based on Google’s Erye Hernandez, the vulnerability (labeled CVE-2021-30869) was reported to Apple in late August of 2021 and patched in macOS Catalina security update 2021-006 on September 23. Each of these posts have extra info on the implications of this exploit—it hasn’t been confirmed, however it definitely seems to be one more entrance in China’s effort to crack down on civil liberties in Hong Kong—however for our functions, let’s deal with how Apple retains its working methods updated, as a result of that has even wider implications.

On the floor, this incident is a comparatively unremarkable instance of safety updates working as they should. Vulnerability is found within the wild, vulnerability is reported to the corporate that’s answerable for the software program, and vulnerability is patched, all within the area of a couple of month. The issue, as noted by Intego chief security analyst Joshua Long, is that the very same CVE was patched in macOS Big Sur version 11.2, launched all the way in which again on February 1, 2021. That is a 234-day hole, even supposing Apple was and remains to be actively updating each variations of macOS.

For context: yearly, Apple releases a brand new model of macOS. However for the good thing about individuals who do not need to set up a brand new working system on day one, or who cannot set up the brand new working system as a result of their Mac is not on the supported {hardware} listing, Apple offers security-only updates for older macOS variations for round two years after they’re changed.

This coverage is not spelled out anyplace, however the casual “N+2” software program help timeline has been in place because the very early days of Mac OS X (as you’ll be able to think about, it felt far more beneficiant when Apple went two or three years between macOS releases as an alternative of 1 12 months). The conventional supposition, and one which I consider when making improve suggestions in our yearly macOS opinions, is that “supported” means “supported,” and that you just need not set up a brand new OS and take care of new-OS bugs simply to learn from Apple’s newest safety fixes.

However as Lengthy factors out on Twitter and on the Intego Mac Security Blog, that is not at all times the case. He has made a behavior of evaluating the safety content material of various macOS patches and has discovered that there are various vulnerabilities that only get patched in the newest versions of macOS (and it seems to be like iOS 15 may be the same way, although iOS 14 is still being actively supported with security updates). You may clarify away a few of this disparity—many (although not all!) of the WebKit vulnerabilities in that listing have been patched in a separate Safari update, and a few bugs could have an effect on newer options that are not really current in older variations of the working system. Based on Hernandez, the vulnerability at problem right here did not appear to have an effect on macOS Mojave, regardless of its lack of a patch. However within the case of this privilege escalation bug, we have now an instance of an actively exploited vulnerability that was current in a number of variations of the working system however for months had solely really been patched in one in all them.

The straightforward answer for this downside is that Apple ought to really present all of the safety updates for all of the working methods that it’s actively updating. Nevertheless it’s additionally time for higher communication on this topic. Apple ought to spell out its replace insurance policies for older variations of macOS, as Microsoft does, quite than counting on its present hand-wavy launch timing—macOS Mojave’s final safety replace was back in July, for instance, which means that although it was nonetheless officially-unofficially supported till Monterey was released in October, it missed out on a bunch of safety patches launched for Big Sur and Catalina in September. Individuals should not must guess whether or not their software program remains to be being up to date.

As Apple leaves increasingly Intel Macs behind, it also needs to take into account extending these timelines, if just for Mac {hardware} that’s actually incapable of upgrading to newer macOS releases (there may be precedent for this, as iOS 12 continued to obtain safety updates for 2 years after being changed, however solely on {hardware} that could not improve to iOS 13 or newer). It isn’t affordable to count on Apple to help outdated macOS variations in perpetuity, however completely practical Macs should not be in a scenario the place they’re two years (or much less) from being completely unpatched if Apple decides to drop them from that 12 months’s help listing.

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