Mac App Store's slow updates expose users to security risks

Opera browser downloaded from Apple's e-mart is two versions behind the real deal

Apple's Mac App Store puts users at risk because it's slow to update vulnerable software, a security researcher said Wednesday.

Security blogger Joshua Long raised the issue yesterday when he pointed out that the Norwegian-made Opera browser has not been updated on the Mac App Store since March 1, 2011.

Since then, however, Opera has released two updates to add features, fix crash bugs and patch vulnerabilities in the browser. Yesterday, Opera updated to version 11.11, which closed a critical hole that could be exploited by attackers to infect a Mac with malicious code.

"Users who rely on the App Store to tell them whether their software is up-to-date may not be aware of the security risks and may continue to use an unsafe version of the Opera browser," said Long.

When Apple launched the Mac App Store last January, one of the online mart's selling points was that it would automatically notify customers when updates were available.

Long's argument is that Apple has failed to make good on the promise. "Mac users who have downloaded Opera through the App Store may find themselves using a copy of Opera that is now two versions old," he said.

Apple requires developers to strip out any auto-update features from their software when they submit it to the Mac App Store, making Apple's program responsible for all updating.

Opera spokesman Thomas Ford said that the company is waiting for Apple to approve a newer version of the browser for the Mac App Store. "For now we recommend users visit opera.com to download the newest version," said Ford in an email reply to questions. "Opera features an auto-update mechanism which will make upgrading to the newest version quick and easy."

When users download Opera from the company's site, the auto-update feature notifies them of any available update. If users don't update then, the browser kicks in an silent update to push them the newest version.

Long also said other App Store-available software, including Amazon's Kindle for the Mac, lagged behind the freshest version.

According to searches done Thursday by Computerworld, however, of the 25 best-selling paid applications on Apple's online market, none of the non-Apple, non-games programs were currently out-of-date.

Long's criticism of the Mac App Store wasn't the first time that Apple has been charged with update lethargy, said Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Security.

"What's new?" said Storms when he was asked his take on the Opera-Mac App Store situation. "You don't need to go to the App Store to get outdated software from Apple. Just load the OS."

Storms was referring to Apple's sluggishness in updating third-party components within Mac OS X. In the past, Apple has sometimes patched those components months after the original developer or open-source project has issued updates.

Although not in direct response to those charges, Apple last year announced it would stop bundling Adobe Flash -- one of the components it was often slow to update -- with Mac OS X, saying at the time that, "The best way for users to always have the most up-to-date and secure version is to download it directly from Adobe."

"If Apple can't update software containing critical security patches to the App Store in a timely fashion, users might be wiser getting their software via a more conventional route," said Graham Cluley, a senior security technology consultant with U.K.-based Sophos, in a blog post Wednesday.

Opera is the only major browser that is available on the Mac App Store; Apple does not distribute its own Safari on the online market.

Apple hasn't updated Opera on the Mac App Store since March, leaving users vulnerable to attack, a researcher has argued.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

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