The Reality of Apple’s macOS Security Snafu. It’s About Trust

2 minute read
| Editorial

There are many temptations and ample opportunities to lean on Apple for its recent, catastrophic root access vulnerability. See: “macOS High Sierra Has a Severe Vulnerability Giving Anyone Root Access.” But I’m going to focus just on Apple’s visible actions.

macOS High Sierra on iMac

macOS High Sierra. Trustworthy?

Part of the criticism can likely (and properly) be directed at management practices. See: “Apple’s Mistake of the Century.” My personal experience leads me to believe that non-technical managers put time pressure on software engineers who weren’t experienced enough with BSD UNIX to understand the implications of the code changes. After all, UNIX security fundamentals are holy ground, and there must be good shepherds in the chain of command.

I think that practice is related to a bigger issue, and that’s the fact that Apple no longer celebrates the UNIX underpinnings of macOS. Apple appears to feel that the traditional celebration of UNIX is too geeky and would scare average Mac customers away. But the fact is, macOS is good for consumers precisely because of the time and effort put into it by (former) senior Apple UNIX gurus like Avie Tevanian, Bertrand Serlet and Jordan Hubbard.

The fact that you no longer see any mention of macOS as a UNIX OS on the macOS product pages means that there’s no longer any celebration of UNIX, its fundamentals and its heritage. No celebration means no awareness. No awareness means no excellence in execution.

Apple UNIX

No more celebration suggests no mindful focus.

Job One: Rebuilding Trust

Providing an apology, as Apple did, was the minimum required action. But it can’t stop there. For example, a doctor who makes a grave mistake and accidentally kills a healthy patient must apologize. But the hospital has to rebuild trust by explaining what when wrong, who got disciplined, and what detailed procedures have been put in place to prevent a re-occurrence.

That’s exactly what the TV news magazine 60 Minutes did on December 3. The producer, Jeff Fager, explained how 60 Minutes made some serious mistakes in the past. But he emphasized that rebuilding trust means explaining to the viewer how and why the mistake happened. He set the example.

I know Apple never likes to air its dirty laundry. It’s bad for Apple’s public image. But when a mistake of this magnitude happens, Apple executives should ponder whether an apology is sufficient to re-build trust. In addition, a reference to an audit seems too vague to satisfy the criteria of how and why. Apple said, in part,

We greatly regret this error and we apologize to all Mac users. Our customers deserve better. We are auditing our development processes to help prevent this from happening again.

When Scott Forstall refused to apologize to Apple customers for problems with Apple maps, he was fired. While Apple has apologized in this case, it will require additional, painful steps to admit what went wrong and explain in more detail how it could happen. That’s the first step in a genuine change in corporate thinking.

Without fessing up to that reality in public, the affirmation of fundamental change, the event lapses into a running joke that will haunt Apple for all time.

9 Comments Add a comment

  1. Old UNIX Guy

    Hi John,

    Another good article.

    Related to Apple’s deemphasis of the UNIX underpinnings of macOS … it doesn’t appear that Apple ever published a Core Technologies Overview PDF for Sierra, must less High Sierra. The last one I can find is for El Capitan.

    Ah, the good old days of Betrand Serlet and Snow Leopard and “OS X for UNIX Users” …

    Old UNIX Guy

  2. John Martellaro

    Old UNIX Guy. You’re right! Little things like that make the pros wonder about their commitment to Apple – when Apple isn’t committed to them.

  3. makeitup

    Absolutely agree. For me, trust in Apple’s products has been declining for several years. Probably still better hardware than the competition, but my experience has been anything but trouble free. With macOS, there have also been a series of failures that are concerning. The latest snafus and botched patches shake one’s confidence. My iCloud mail sometimes vanishes without a trace – as I’m reading it. I’m starting to question my commitment to Apple. Hate the alternative so it’s a dilemma.

    I’m not a UNIX expert, but I do know macOS fairly well. The additional features Apple has added are nice but their focus seems now to be off quality, despite what they say. Shaken trust is hard to win back. I agree a fundamental change in corporate philosophy is needed. Hate to say it (and its becoming long in the tooth) but Steve’s gone and his obsessiveness did not transfer to anyone else.

    • Jamie

      They definitely have the market for emoji innovation cornered. 😛

      I do still consider their mobile hardware the best, but the rest . . . I’m starting to wonder. I’ll be buying a new Mac sometime in 2018, I will reserve judgement until then. On the software side, High Sierra was a total disaster for me, though I understand mileage varies. I’m not too keen on the way iOS 11 randomly spams the user about its own features, either. It’s like a disembodied Clippy.

  4. pjs_boston

    Here’s my theory about the root logon bug.

    I’d bet that early in the integration of APFS with macOS, folks in the development team were getting locked out of their files due to authentication bugs. The team ( or possibly an individual in the team) likely put the backdroor in on purpose to prevent data loss while they worked out the bugs. Then, when they were done, they simply neglected to remove the backdoor.

    This was a project management issue, not a technical one.

    • Old UNIX Guy

      On the Accidental Tech Podcast last week they were speculating that the bug could’ve been introduced by something as simple as a programmer who writes both C and Shell code messing up an if statement since the meaning of a 0 or 1 return code is the exact opposite in those two languages.

      But the bottom line is that: 1) we’re all just speculating unless Apple fesses up. 2) Apple’s QA process should’ve caught something this egregious.

      Old UNIX Guy

  5. Ned

    Agreed, thanks John. I spoke with a manager years ago, before the word “transparency” came in to vogue. He was telling me about speculation from different areas of the operation after he’d appointed a new manager, one with little experience. He was laughing at some of the theories and stories. I told him, “If I’ve learned one thing about people, it’s that minus the whole story, they’ll make up the rest.” And it’s usually uncomplimentary.

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