Security experts knock Apple for not patching DNS bug

Experts agree Apple slow to patch open source components of its operating systems.

Apple has not yet patched a critical Domain Name System (DNS) bug in its Mac OS X operating system, analysts and security researchers noted today as some criticized the company for dragging its feet.

"It's not sending a real good message," said Rich Mogull, an independent security consultant and former Gartner analyst. "If they don't patch this in a reasonable time, they're putting their customers at risk."

Apple, which integrates considerable open-source code into its operating systems, relies on BIND (Berkeley Internet Name Domain), created by the Internet Systems Consortium (ISC), for its DNS components. ISC patched BIND July 8, but as of today, Apple had not released an update for Mac OS X.

According to Dan Kaminsky, the researcher who uncovered the DNS flaw in February and helped coordinate a multivendor patch effort, Apple was told of the vulnerability before patches went public. "They were notified at some point," said Kaminsky, who did not name a date. "They were given a heads-up."

Approximately a month after Kaminsky discovered the vulnerability, representatives from several major developers, including Cisco Systems, Internet Systems Consortium (ISC) and Microsoft, met at the latter's Redmond, Washington, headquarters to discuss how to handle the bug. "In the Spring it was all about [vendors] who write DNS code, at its core it was about people who write name servers," said Kaminsky. Companies he called "second tier," those that "ship name server code that others write," were not part of that March meeting at Microsoft. Apple, he added, was one of those second tier vendors.

Calls to patch grew louder last week, however, after other researchers guessed some of the bug's technical details. Two days later, attack code went public.

Apple did not respond to questions about when it had been informed of the DSN flaw and when it would update Mac OS X to patch the bug.

Kaminsky was willing to cut Apple some slack on the DNS patch issue because of its miniscule market share. "Not that many people are running BIND on OS X Server, and those that do don't need Apple to hold their hand about patching," he said. "If there was a huge population of people behind DNS servers running OS X, I'd be more worried. That's not a dig [against Apple], it's just a statement."

In the grand scheme of things DNS, Kaminsky continued, Apple is a minor player at best. "We have bigger fish to fry," he said, adding that it was more important to focus on the vendors whose DNS code affected the most people.

True enough, said Mogull, but that's beside the point for people running Apple's operating system, particularly those relying on Mac OS X Server. "It may be a low priority in the scheme of the DNS vulnerability, but if all my servers are OS X, it matters. Within the Mac audience, it matters."

Andrew Storms, director of security operations at security vendor nCircle Network Security, echoed Mogull's comments. "It is valid to say that the target market [for the DNS exploit] doesn't really affect them, if only because Mac OS X is primarily a client-side operating system."

But both Mogull and Storms hammered Apple for not providing its users with any word. "Users have to wonder if Apple is even listening to the talk about the DNS bug," Storms said. "We don't know anything. Why can't Apple simply make a one-line statement that it knows about the vulnerability and will have a fix in the next 30 to 60 days?

"It's that fear of the unknown that fuels the fire," Storms said.

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Gregg Keizer

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