Security - The Human Element (Part 2)

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You should also look at less-conventional methods of protection. Little Snitch ($29.95 from html) will watch for software making outbound connections. These are normally hard to handle in your firewall settings, as they could become a serious obstruction to your normal internet use. Little Snitch traps these exceptionally well and could alert you if a Trojan installed on your Mac tried to contact its controller, for instance. However, this is very late in the day and your efforts should be focused on preventing the Trojan from getting near your Mac in the first place.

Description: Spot the scam Mailsmith opens this HTML scam mail purporting to be from Apple in plain text form, with full internet headers revealed

Spot the scamMailsmith opens this HTML scam mail purporting to be from Apple in plain text form, with full internet headers revealed

Powerful protection can also be so restrictive that you’re driven to subversion. In the days of Classic Mac OS, some widely used commercial virus protection behaved so painfully whenever you inserted a floppy disk that most users had to disable it before doing so; many then left it disabled afterwards. This was doubly dangerous, as they were left without the protection that they assumed was in place, and if they engaged in risk compensation on the assumption that their virus protection would save them, they were easy victims.

There are no instant answers to securing your Mac and iOS devices from attack. However, whatever you decide to do, you must be honest to yourself about the risks that you run, and how you can best avert them. Never underestimate the importance of the human element, as it’s that which is most readily exploited.

Defensive mail

Malicious Mail can either put something nasty in your mailbox, delivering the malware straight to you, or lure you to connect to a malicious site or send details that can be exploited. Either way, you must collect and read it in a modern client with a sound first level of protection. Old clients have flaws in them that could expose you to risk when receiving or reading mail.

Description: Description: Get in training – Spam filters such as SpamSieve take the effort out of sorting your incoming mail. Take the trouble to train them for efficiency

Get in trainingSpam filters such as SpamSieve take the effort out of sorting your incoming mail. Take the trouble to train them for efficiency

Although aesthetically pleasing to view RTF and HTML messages fully formatted, and with images displayed in place, this increases risk. Some mail clients, such as Mailsmith (free from can’t themselves display anything beyond plain text; they strip text embedded within other formats, allowing you to screen the mail before you choose to view it. This also helps you sort through your mail very quickly, without having to wade through prettified content.

Sorting mail automatically into wanted and unwanted (spam and scam) mailboxes is even more useful, but not a perfect science. The best spam filters don’t destroy or bounce spam and must be trained by sorting received mail manually. This training is essential to achieving good accuracy and you shouldn’t simply delete spam that isn’t correctly identified as such. The better filters, such as SpamSieve (, work across several different mail clients, and, following training, can achieve 99% accuracy.

Learning to understand mail internet headers also takes time, but has worthwhile rewards. Look at those in typical genuine messages (including benign and wanted bulk mail) and those in obviously malicious mail. You’ll see that some elements are easily forged, but tracing the series of servers through which the message has passed is usually the best way to discover that they first appeared in a system that has nothing to do with their claimed origin.

Wise browsing

There are three key elements to enjoying the riches of the internet without fear of attack. You need to configure your browser appropriately for the sites you might encounter, assess the risk of every click and handle downloads wisely.

Description: Description: Risk assessment – Browser settings shouldn’t be set once and left alone. Adjust them as you need to match the risks posed by sites and content

Risk assessmentBrowser settings shouldn’t be set once and left alone. Adjust them as you need to match the risks posed by sites and content

Browsers have security settings that shouldn’t be left at their defaults. The most dangerous option is to open downloaded files automatically, which you should never do. In ordinary use, you’ll almost certainly need to accept cookies, enable Java and JavaScript, and popups. However, when you think you could be entering higher-risk sites, such as those in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Far East, tighten up your settings, possibly turning those off for the time being. Changing settings on the fly is unusual, but an excellent habit to get into.

Enable the status bar and other tools that display addresses of links, so that you can screen where any click will take you. Beware of links that take you outside the current domain, particularly if you don’t recognise the address. If you remain keen to follow a link, but are deeply suspicious as to where it will take you, view that page’s source and see if you can be reassured or alarmed by what you see. Avoid at all costs being hijacked to a distant malware server.

Anything, even images and web pages, that you download from a site in which you don’t have complete trust, should be very carefully checked. Most antivirus software, including ClamXav (free from, enable you to set up a watched folder, whose contents will be automatically scanned. Apply that to your Downloads folder (or the alternative that you’ve set in your browser’s preferences) so that those files will get the once-over before you try to open them on your Mac.

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