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Gizmodo reports on recent comments made by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, basically amounting to him saying Apple should just put a secret law enforcement-only backdoor in the iPhone rather than fighting the US government:

As lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have started paying more attention to tech’s increasing influence over our lives, Microsoft’s antitrust battle with the US government in the ‘90s has frequently been used as an example of the worst way to deal with the US government. Since it lost that case, Microsoft has become the war-weary veteran of the tech world—highly profitable and not too disruptive. Gates tells Axios that he fears “Apple and other tech giants” are in a precarious position at the moment. “The companies need to be careful that they’re not … advocating things that would prevent government from being able to, under appropriate review, perform the type of functions that we’ve come to count on,” he said.

When pressed for an example of how companies are flouting government oversight, he mentioned the wave of “enthusiasm about making financial transactions anonymous and invisible, and their view that even a clear mass-murdering criminal’s communication should never be available to the government.” Axios pointed out that he appeared to be referring to the FBI’s desire for an ability to break into encrypted iPhones. Gates replied, “There’s no question of ability; it’s the question of willingness.”

Bill Gates is highly intelligent, but this position is just downright dumbfounding.

For the majority of my life I have been a proverbial power user with computers, primarily in love with speed and specs more than practicality. If a computer was not equipped with the fastest processor, most amount of RAM, or largest storage, then I would not consider it for purchase. After traveling all over Tokyo with a laptop attached to my back for the past few years, I have a newfound appreciation for mobility, and my desires have evolved – dare I say – with both old age and pragmatism.

When Apple released its most recent new laptop design in 2015 – the Retina MacBook, simply called MacBook – I laughed at the single USB-C port and thought there was no way in hell I could ever live with a single port. One port? Seriously? WTF Apple?

Fast forward to a couple months ago when Apple released an update to the MacBook lineup, equipping it with a refreshed set of Intel m3, m5, and m7 chips. Apple opted to stick with the single port and same design, much to the dismay of the power user crowd. Initially I rebuffed the new models until I took a closer look at my more recent usage patterns, as well as long-term computing desires.

Background

Late last year my wife purchased a MacBook Air 11” and she loves its portability. Not only does it have a small footprint but it is lightweight, and packs a fairly decent performance punch. It is, by no means, a MacBook Pro – nor is it meant to compete with one – but it demonstrates essentially no discernable lack of power in everyday tasks like web surfing, email, PowerPoint, Word, and other standard business applications. The MacBook is ultimately meant to replace the Air in the Apple laptop lineup, and this was obviously their goal: make the most mobile yet usable Mac possible.

The noticeable lack of weight, and thus extreme portability, are what attracted me to the idea of the MacBook. My back was tired of carrying around a heavy MacBook Pro on the train and foot to customer meetings all over Tokyo. My desire to be more productive while on-the-go was overcome by the strain the weight added when mobile, so I yearned for something like the MacBook. I had thought of buying an Air but was uninterested in using a non-Retina screen. This was a tough decision, and one I weighed very carefully over the course of a couple weeks, visiting the Apple Store almost daily to play around with the MacBook and the Air.

About the MacBook

Let me get this out of the way upfront: the 2016 MacBook m5, w/8GB RAM and 512GB SSD is my favorite Apple laptop ever. I say this after having used nothing but PowerBook and MacBook Pro models since 2003. I migrated to the MacBook from a Retina MacBook Pro 15” w/16GB RAM and 512GB SSD. The screen and weight alone are the perfect combination for someone like me, who is constantly taking the train, bus, and walking all over Tokyo.

Having moved from a rMBP, which still functions as my mock-desktop replacement, I was only slightly concerned about the USB-C port. I use my rMBP for streaming video to my Apple TV via Plex. The majority of my media is stored on an external 1TB USB3 HDD. I had contemplated retiring the rMBP and using the MacBook for streaming, but then realized my goal with the MacBook was portability. I rarely ever use the external HDD when I am mobile, and quickly dismissed the notion of the single USB-C port being a barrier for my use case.

Let me just dive right in the deep-end and breakdown the pros and cons of the MacBook, as I see them:

Pros

  • Weight. I can barely even feel the machine in my backpack, therefore it does not bother my back in the least. Unlike the MacBook Pro, which is noticeably heavy, the MacBook is light as a feather.
  • Screen. Having moved from a Retina MacBook Pro, I had to stick with the Retina display. The Air, while a nice laptop, still has old display technology. The MacBook’s screen is simply gorgeous.
  • Battery. I use this thing constantly, for likely 6-8 hours a day, on wifi, streaming music. Never once have I needed to charge it during the day even though I bring the charger just in-case. It is unreal how well this battery holds up. At the end of the day, I usually have approximately 35% battery remaining, even after heavy daily use.
  • Speed. While there are some minor noticeable speed issues, by and large the MacBook launches applications immediately. I have not had issue with lag yet for one exception: Microsoft Office. Launching Word, Excel, and PowerPoint takes a noticeable amount of time, with the icons bouncing on the dock for a couple seconds before the window finally appears. For me, it is a non-issue, however if you are impatient, this could be problematic.

Cons

  • Speed. While listed as a Pro, it is also a con. Sometimes you expect and want apps to launch immediately. That Microsoft Office apps take a noticeable amount of time to launch can sometimes be a tad frustrating. As I just mentioned, if you are impatient, this could be a potential deal breaker. I challenge you to reconsider your notion of speed and why it would ever be so necessary to have a bloated Microsoft application appear instantaneously. But I digress …
  • Resolution. I am getting old, and my eyes are not what they used to be, and thus the 12” screen is tough to see at times. Nothing glasses will not solve, but I generally do not want to resort to pulling out my reading glasses just to see my MacBook screen. Call me vain.
  • Cost. At almost $2000 total, you really need to consider the justification for a purchase of this magnitude.
  • Ports. The MacBook only has two ports: a single USB-C port, and a headphone plug. The USB-C port doubles as the charging port, therefore the only way to use USB devices and charge the laptop simultaneously is by using a hub. This is a huge con for a lot of people, although in my practical yet anecdotal use of my own MacBook, this has never been an issue.

MacBook Butterfly KeyboardI hesitate to put the keyboard in either of the above even though it seems to be a huge debate topic. Overall, I am satisfied with the keyboard and the small travel distance of the keys. The only part of the keyboard I can say I utterly hate is the arrow keys. They are so weird, and I have yet to get used to the layout. Otherwise, for me, the keyboard is a non-issue.

Being in the industry I am in, often times I need to run VMware and have a VM or two open at a time. I have done this while keeping Safari open with about 15 tabs, Mail, Slack, Tweetbot, PowerPoint, and Word, and the MacBook hums along without any lag or issues. I often times even have VLC playing a video in the background or I am streaming music, and I have yet to see the machine stutter.

Generally 8GB RAM does not sound like a lot, and the m5 seems like it would be underpowered compared to its i7 cousin in my rMBP, but it performs mostly flawlessly. It is amazing how tight this laptop is compared to its on-paper specs.

Finally, I do not count the single USB-C port a con. The vast majority of people, myself included even though I am techie and geek, rarely need to plug in external peripherals. In the unlikely event it iss necessary, I did pick-up an Anker USB-C hub. It was 2000JPY and has two standard USB-3 ports, HDMI-out, and a USB-C port for either charging the MacBook or for using another USB-C device. All-in-all, I have used it twice in two months.

I consider that hardly a necessity nor a problem.

Conclusion

MacBook 2016As I said at the very beginning, this is a wonderful laptop, and my favorite of all I have ever owned. I have never been so enamored with hardware, Apple or otherwise, until now. I feel much more productive being able to move around Tokyo, barely noticing a laptop is hanging off my back. It is refreshing.

The biggest question on my mind about the MacBook is this: longevity. How long will the machine last? I have a 2009 MacBook Pro that continues to hum along without issues. Will a MacBook last that long? I suspect not, but you never know. As a costly investment, I really hope the MacBook is capable of handling future macOS updates without any noticeable performance degradation. Only time will be able to answer this question.

If you value portability over expandability and raw power, the Retina MacBook is likely just what you need. I find myself falling in love with it all over again, each day I use it, simply because I can use this laptop anywhere and everywhere without ever thinking twice. Even if you value power over portability, this little engine that could will surprise you.

However, if you are unable to get passed the lack of expansion ports, this is decidedly not for you in its current incarnation. Remember, the first two years of the MacBook Air’s life, it had limited expansion ports, and then the third year saw it slightly redesigned into its current form, complete with plenty of expandability.

This is my machine, and the only computer I need on a daily basis. For me, the MacBook is almost the holy grail of computers – the perfect combination of iPad-like portability yet with a full-fledged operating system where I can be, and feel, productive.

Thank you Apple for catering to my needs.

In-the-wild OS X backdoors are suddenly back in action:

The first one, dubbed Eleanor by researchers at antivirus provider Bitdefender, is hidden inside EasyDoc Converter, a malicious app that is, or at least was, available on a software download site called MacUpdate. When double clicked, EasyDoc silently installs a backdoor that provides remote access to a Mac’s file system and webcam, making it possible for attackers to download files, install new apps, and watch users who are in front of an infected machine. Eleanor communicates with control servers over the Tor anonymity service to prevent them from being taken down or being used to identify the attackers.

This type of malware is particularly dangerous as it’s hard to detect and offers the attacker full control of the compromised system,” Tiberius Axinte, technical leader of the Bitdefender Antimalware Lab, said in a blog post published Wednesday. “For instance, someone can lock you out of your laptop, threaten to blackmail you to restore your private files or transform your laptop into a botnet to attack other devices.”

Personally, I do not use anti-virus on a Mac, nor do I recommend it. Stick with the default OS X settings, and use common sense, and you should be safe.

Live by a single, simple rule: do not be stupid.

Let that be your daily life lesson.

Did Apple purposely and strategically release the iOS 10 kernel obfuscated or was it an oversight?

The heart of an operating system is a component known as the kernel, which controls how programs can use a device’s hardware and enforces security. Apple has previously encrypted the kernel in iOS releases, hiding its exact workings and forcing researchers to find ways around or through it. But the kernel was left unobfuscated in the preview version of iOS 10 released to developers last week for the most recent Apple devices.

That doesn’t mean the security of iOS 10 is compromised. But looking for flaws in this version of the operating system will be much easier, says Jonathan Levin, author of an in-depth book on the internal workings of iOS. “It reduces the complexity of reverse engineering considerably,” he says.

The goodies exposed publicly for the first time include a security measure designed to protect the kernel from being modified, says security researcher Mathew Solnik. “Now that it is public, people will be able to study it [and] potentially find ways around it,” he says.

There is no way a company as large and focused as Apple accidentally left something as important as the kernel unobfuscated.

This was a strategic move, but to what end?

Apple goes all in on encryption despite FBI concerns:

As part of the new system, developers building software for Apple’s devices will be able to opt for users’ information to have no encryption, single-key encryption, or multi-key encryption “with per-file keys for file data and a separate key for sensitive metadata” – comparable to leaving a door unlocked, using one key, or using two keys.

In its documentation of APFS, Apple explains that full disk encryption has been available on OS X since version 10.7 Lion. APFS differs in that it encrypts files individually rather than as a one unit, similar to other encryption mechanisms Apple introduced to its iOS platform in 2010. It also encrypts related metadata – the basic summary attached to each file – and will keen data secure even when the device has been physically hacked.

Since its battle with the FBI, Apple has made a number of important changes to increase security and tighten encryption. Apple itself couldn’t decrypt information the agency demanded, but the company did have the keys to access information stored in the shooter’s iCloud account. The company is now reportedly considering a system that wouldn’t allow it to access iCloud data.

The shortsighted Federal Bureau of Investigation considered taking Apple to court due to their encryption capabilities built-in to iMessage, Facetime, and iOS devices:

The clash with Cupertino was reportedly sparked by an investigation this summer — “involving guns and drugs” — in which a court order was obtained, demanding that Apple provide real time iMessages exchanged by iPhone-using suspects. Due to the stringent security measures featured on iOS 8, Apple responded that it could not comply due to the advanced encryption used by the company.

Thankfully, the decision was taken not to pursue legal action. However, the case once again demonstrates the opposition that exists within government to Apple’s stance on user privacy.

In a previous open letter, F.B.I. director James Comey argued that the top-notch security on devices like the iPhone have potential to aid terrorist groups like ISIS.

Tim Cook, meanwhile, has argued that Apple is taking a moral stance by not mining user data.

The ostensible Obama administration’s war against Apple and Google providing device encryption on by default has gotten uglier with the prospect that the companies could potentially be held liable for providing material support to terrorists (emphasis added):

Benjamin Wittes, editor-in-chief of the LawFare blog, suggested that Apple could in fact face that liability if it continued to provide encryption services to a suspected terrorist. He noted that the post was in response to an idea raised by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., in a hearing earlier this month.

“In the facts we considered,” wrote Wittes and his co-author, Harvard law student Zoe Bedell, “a court might — believe it or not — consider Apple as having violated the criminal prohibition against material support for terrorism.”

FBI Director James Comey and others have said that end-to-end encryption makes law enforcement harder because service providers don’t have access to the actual communications, and therefore cannot turn them over when served with a warrant.

Wittes and Bedell argue that Apple’s decision to “move aggressively to implement end-to-end encrypted systems, and indeed to boast about them” after being “publicly and repeatedly warned by law enforcement at the very highest levels that ISIS is recruiting Americans” — in part through the use of encrypted messaging apps — could make the company liable if “an ISIS recruit uses exactly this pattern to kill some Americans.”

The blog compares Apple’s actions to a bank sending money to a charity supporting Hamas — knowing that it was a listed foreign terrorist organization.

“The question ultimately turns on whether Apple’s conduct in providing encryption services could, under any circumstances, be construed as material support,” Wittes and Bedell write. The answer, they say, “may be unnerving to executives at Apple.”

Generally speaking, Mac OS X is a much safer operating system compared to Microsoft Windows, but that does not mean it is completely immune to vulnerabilities. German researcher Stefan Esser has identified a dangerous local privilege escalation vulnerability in Mac OS X (emphasis added):

“Furthermore the opened log file is never closed and therefore its file descriptor is leaked into processes spawned by SUID binaries. This means child processes of SUID root processes can write to arbitrary files owned by the root user anywhere in the filesystem. This allows for easy privilege escalation in OS X 10.10.x,” Esser added.

Esser has published technical details on the vulnerability and explained how it can be exploited for full privilege escalation. He has also released a proof-of-concept (PoC) exploit that provides a local root shell.

While Esser decided to take the full disclosure approach and not notify Apple before making his findings public, it appears this vulnerability was reported to the company months ago by the South Korean researcher known as “beist.”

However, Apple only fixed the flaw in the beta versions of OS X El Capitan 10.11, and not in the current OS X 10.10.4 or the beta version of OS X 10.10.5. OS X 10.11 is expected to be released in late September or early October.

Esser has pointed out that the local privilege escalation vulnerability also affects jailbroken iPhones running iOS 8.x.

Well this sure is interesting: Facebook is offering a service capable of hunting down Hacking Team malware solely on Apple Mac OS X:

Facebook announced today it was pushing out some “query packs” on its code page that would enable IT folk to quickly look for signs of Hacking Team infection. These query packs form part of Facebook’s “osquery”, a free and open source framework that can be used to gather network data and quickly ask questions to uncover potential security threats. It’s part of the social network’s own security defences and was updated recently to protect against some critical Apple Mac and iPhone vulnerabilities.

Whilst query packs can be created to bunch specific, commonly-used sets of questions for datasets, Facebook has released a handful of its own, including ones related specifically to Apple Mac OS X machines. “The OS X-attacks pack has queries which identify known variants of malware, ranging from advanced persistent threats (APT) to adware and spyware. If a query in this pack produces results, a host in your Mac fleet is compromised with malware. This pack is high signal and should result in near-zero false positives,” said Javier Marcos, security engineer at Facebook, in a blog post, before noting that the query pack includes commands that seek out signs of Hacking Team infiltration.

Sounds quite useful!

I know many techies have this innate urge to tweak things and feel constrained by what Apple brings to the table with stock iOS, so they opt to jailbreak their beloved iPhone for various reasons. What a lot of people do not realize is, now confirmed by the Hacking Team hack, is jailbreaking your iPhone actually opens it up for far more exploits and nefarious use by malicious actors (emphasis added):

That external analysis has now been complemented by the Hacking Team’s internal documents. One pricelist shows a €50,000 ($56,000) price tag on an iOS snooping module with the note, “Prerequisite: the iOS device must be jailbroken.”

While jailbreaking an iOS device to install software has been a continuously sought-after option, and one that’s constantly revised by different parties as Apple fixes the exploits that allow it, there’s always been a concomitant knowledge that jailbreaking renders an iPhone or iPad vulnerable. Apple is certainly protecting its ecosystem, but researchers agree it’s also protecting system integrity.

Nick DePetrillo, a principal security researcher at Trail of Bits, says, “Jailbreaking your iPhone is running untrusted third-party exploit code on your phone that disables security features of your iPhone in order to give you the ability to customize your phone and add applications that Apple doesn’t approve.”

This should be fairly common sense. It is quite obvious the act of jailbreaking, for all intents and purposes, disables some iOS security feature so that the device can be used to run untrusted applications. If you jailbreak your phone and were unaware of this, then I suggest you restore your phone back to a known good stock iOS version, such as the recently released iOS 8.4

Although installing the malware on a jailbroken iOS device would seemingly require physical access, the related exploit of jailbreaking via malware installed on a trusted computer would allow bypassing that limitation.

Researchers have also found so far that Hacking Team has a legitimate Apple enterprise signing certificate, which is used to create software that can be installed by employees of a company who also accept or have installed a profile that allows use of apps signed by the certificate. It was shown last November that an enterprise certificate combined with a jailbroken iOS device could be used to bypass iOS protections on installing apps. Further, Hacking Team had developed a malicious Newsstand app that could capture keystrokes and install its monitoring software.

Still want to jailbreak?

Forbes has done some outstanding writing on their article about inside China’s iphone jailbreaking industrial complex:

It was a bizarre trip hosted by an equally bizarre and secretive entity called TaiG (pronounced “tie-gee”), which flew the hackers to China to share techniques and tricks to slice through the defences of Apple’s mobile operating system in front of an eager conference-hall crowd. Why such interest and why such aggrandisement of iOS researchers? In the last two years, jailbreaking an iPhone – the act of removing iOS’ restrictions against installing unauthorized apps, app stores and other features by exploiting Apple security – has become serious business in China. From Alibaba to Baidu, China’s biggest companies are supporting and even funding the practice, unfazed at the prospect of peeving Apple, which has sought to stamp out jailbreaking ever since it became a craze in the late 2000s.

Any hacker who can provide the full code for an untethered jailbreak, where the hack continues to work after the phone reboots, can expect a big pay check for their efforts. “Many experts agree the price for an untethered jailbreak is around $1 million,” says Nikias Bassen, aka Pimskeks, a lanky 33-year-old iOS hacker who is part of the evad3rshacker collective. More often, sellers of iOS zero-day vulnerabilities – the previously-unknown and unpatched flaws required for jailbreaks – make thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars from Chinese firms, private buyers or governments, in particular three-letter agencies from the US.

Such big sums are on offer due to the explosion of the third-party app store industry in China. There are at least 362 million monthly active mobile app users in China, according to data provided by iResearch. Whilst smartphone owners in Western nations are content within the walled gardens of Apple and Google app stores for their games, media and work tools, the Chinese are fanatical about apps and want the broadest possible choice from non-Apple app stores. Jailbreaks, which do away with Apple’s chains and allow other markets on the device, are thus vital to meeting that demand.

I had no idea jailbreaking was such big money in China, however somehow I am not surprised at all by this development.

If you ever need to know, or ever have to help someone else, here is a list of steps to take to delete old iCloud backups and free up space on your various Apple mobile devices:

When a device is set to backup to iCloud, Apple automatically backs up data and settings stored locally on the particular device; it does not create a backup of data already stored in an iCloud account via Mac or iOS apps (as of iOS 8.1, that includes iCloud Photo Library, shared photo albums, My Photo Stream, documents, contacts, calendars, mail, bookmarks, and notes). iCloud backups include purchase history from the iTunes or App Store, app data, home screen and app organization, iMessage/SMS/MMS text messages, device settings, and visual voicemail on an iOS device.

The problem is, if users have multiple devices, old iCloud back-ups can quickly fill up their storage — particularly if they’re on the free 5-gigabyte tier.

This is a good link to keep handy just in-case. I have used this so many times that at this point the steps are committed to memory.

I found this list explaining just how big Apple is really fascinating:

  • Apple is worth almost twice as much as the world’s second largest company, Google (valued at $375 billion).
  • Apple is worth as much as the second and third largest companies in the world (Google and ExxonMobil) combined.
  • Apple is worth more than Walmart, Facebook, and JPMorgan Chase combined.
  • In the past year, Apple increased in value by more than the total value of General Electric

Simply unbelievable. Read the whole list to be more surprised.

Ars Technica on a new remote exploit leaving most Macs vulnerable to permanent backdooring:

Macs older than a year are vulnerable to exploits that remotely overwrite the firmware that boots up the machine, a feat that allows attackers to control vulnerable devices from the very first instruction.

The attack, according to a blog post published Friday by well-known OS X security researcher Pedro Vilaca, affects Macs shipped prior to the middle of 2014 that are allowed to go into sleep mode. He found a way to reflash a Mac’s BIOS using functionality contained in userland, which is the part of an operating system where installed applications and drivers are executed. By exploiting vulnerabilities such as those regularly found in Safari and other Web browsers, attackers can install malicious firmware that survives hard drive reformatting and reinstallation of the operating system.

The attack is more serious than the Thunderstrike proof-of-concept exploit that came to light late last year. While both exploits give attackers the same persistent and low-level control of a Mac, the new attack doesn’t require even brief physical access as Thunderstrike did. That means attackers half-way around the world may remotely exploit it.

“BIOS should not be updated from userland and they have certain protections that try to mitigate against this,” Vilaca wrote in an e-mail to Ars. “If BIOS are writable from userland then a rootkit can be installed into the BIOS. BIOS rootkits are more powerful than normal rootkits because they work at a lower level and can survive any machine reinstall and also BIOS updates.”

This is a particularly nasty exploit, not just because it allows a persistent backdoor but primarily because it can be done remotely. Generally, flashing a BIOS needs to be accomplished through physical access to the machine. This vulnerability allows attackers to remotely install the permanent backdoor into the BIOS, and such low-level rootkits are the worst type of malware.