Mac security: Protecting your data and communications

Anthony Caruana
25 August, 2014
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Mac security, business, MIB, macworld australiaSecurity is probably the biggest issue in IT at the moment. And while for many years Mac users felt that they were immune to the vast array of different threats out there, the reality is different today.

Unlike the ‘I’m a Mac, I’m a PC‘ ad than lampooned Windows’ security credentials, today’s world is a very different place. Viruses are no longer the main threat. The bad guys are getting smarter and employ lots of different tactics such as social engineering attacks, phishing and even plain old theft.

So, what can you do about it?

What are we protecting?

When we are thinking about protecting our data we need to think about two different things.

  1. Data at rest
  2. Data in flight

Data at rest is what’s stored on your hard drive, on USB sticks and other physical media.

When data is in flight, it’s being transmitted from one point to another.

Protecting data at rest

With your Mac, we strongly recommend turning FileVault on. This technology encrypts all of the data on your hard drive.

If someone doesn’t have the right username and password combination and tries tries to access the drive they will be blocked. So, if your Mac is disassembled and the drive is placed in an external drive casing or another computer, it won’t be able to be read.

You can enable FileVault from the Security and Privacy section of System Preferences. While it might cause a slow down with file access from your drive, we’ve not noticed any difference using our MacBook Pro that’s equipped with an SSD.

It’s also important that you pay attention to the programs you install on your computer. Don’t install applications unless you know what data they might access.

Also, be wary of allowing untrusted parties to have access to your computer by remote control. One of the more common scams going around are support people that call and try to convince you, over the phone, of installing a program on your computer that allows them to gain remote access.

Finally, many people unwittingly give up personal data without providing direct access to their Mac. They are simply coerced or tricked into providing the information themselves. There are dozens of clever variations on the Nigerian Mail Scam – some of which are very clever.

Protecting data in flight

The most effective tools we have for protecting data in flight also involve encryption. When you’re sending confidential data, we strongly recommend avoiding the use of public Wi-Fi hotspots. Any traffic that goes from your Mac to the wireless access point can be intercepted and read by a third party. That party doesn’t need to be a network expert – there are many tools that make the process of capturing wireless data little more than clicking a few buttons.

When using secure online services such as email and social media, ensure that the website traffic is encrypted. You’ll be able to tell by the use of “https” on the URL and the presence of a small padlock icon adjacent to the web address in your web browser’s location bar.

VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, are also worth considering. These allow you to create an encrypted tunnel from your computer to a trusted service provider that then relays your data requests.

For example, if you were using a VPN to access www.macworld.com.au then the traffic from your computer would be encrypted and sent to a third party that would securely send the request to the web server hosting Macworld Australia.

System updates

Software development is rarely perfect. Many applications and Mac OS can have flaws that are undetected in testing that result in security flaws. For that reason, it’s important to ensure that your software is up to date and that all security-related updates are installed promptly.

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