PSA: Apple isn’t actually patching all the security holes in older versions of macOS

Enlarge / The default wallpaper for macOS Catalina.


Information is making the rounds as we speak, each by way of 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. In line with 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, but it surely definitely seems to be yet one more entrance in China’s effort to crack down on civil liberties in Hong Kong—however for our functions, let’s give attention to 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 must. Vulnerability is found within the wild, vulnerability is reported to the corporate that’s accountable for the software program, and vulnerability is patched, all within the house 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 though 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 advantage of individuals who do not wish 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} checklist, Apple gives 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 for the reason that very early days of Mac OS X (as you may think about, it felt rather more beneficiant when Apple went two or three years between macOS releases as a substitute of 1 12 months). The traditional supposition, and one which I think about 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 cope with 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 a lot of 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’ll be able to clarify away a few of this disparity—many (although not all!) of the WebKit vulnerabilities in that checklist had been patched in a separate Safari update, and a few bugs might have an effect on newer options that are not really current in older variations of the working system. In line with Hernandez, the vulnerability at challenge 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’ve 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 every of them.

The straightforward resolution 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. However 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, relatively than counting on its present hand-wavy launch timing—macOS Mojave’s final safety replace was back in July, for instance, that means that though 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 should guess whether or not their software program remains to be being up to date.

As Apple leaves increasingly more Intel Macs behind, it also needs to think about extending these timelines, if just for Mac {hardware} that’s actually incapable of upgrading to newer macOS releases (there’s 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 anticipate Apple to help outdated macOS variations in perpetuity, however completely useful 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 checklist.

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