Passwords in Mac OS X can be pilfered with new tool

The tool capitalizes on a long-known issue in how FireWire can be used to read a computer's memory

A company that makes password recovery tools has released one that can snatch passwords from a locked or sleeping Macintosh running Mac OS X Lion by plugging another computer into the Mac's FireWire port. The attack technique is several years old and the only way to defend against it is to turn the Mac off.

Passware, which has engineering facilities in Moscow and headquarters in Mountain View, California, said its Passware Kit Forensic v11 analyzes a Mac's live memory via FireWire. FireWire is a fast serial interface developed in the 1980s by Apple. It is also known by Sony as i.LINK and was standardized as IEEE 1394.

If a computer is turned on and has been logged into at least once, Passware's software can extract passwords in a few minutes, even if the computer is locked or sleeping. It can even extract passwords in the Mac's keychain password store -- regardless of password strength and even if FileVault encryption is used, the company said in a news release.

The issue affects all "modern" Mac OS versions, including Snow Leopard and the latest one, Lion.

Apple officials contacted in London did not have an immediate comment.

Passware said there's an easy defense: turn off the computer, which erases the passwords from the computer's memory. Passware also suggested disabling the feature that automatically logs in a user when the computer is turned on, a basic security step.

The FireWire password issue has been for some time. In 2008, Uwe Hermann -- a Debian developer -- compiled a list of research papers from over the years summarizing issues with FireWire. Hermann wrote that if you can gain access to a computer with a FireWire port, it is possible to read or write data in the computer's RAM.

Other defenses against the attack include simply not having a computer with a FireWire port or plugging an existing one up. If a computer has a PCMCIA or PCI card slot, however, it could still be vulnerable if a FireWire-enabled card is inserted, Hermann wrote. Another precautionary measure is to try and ensure no one gets access to your computer.

Passware's Kit Forensic costs $995 with one year of free updates.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Appleoperating systemssoftwaredata protectionAccess control and authenticationExploits / vulnerabilitiesMac OS

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Father’s Day Gift Guide

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?