As most readers will have noticed, the Mac press for the last few days was full of scary and conflicting news about a new “MP3Concept” virus or trojan.

It started on April 8 when Intego, a company that sells several security and antivirus programs, announced “Protection Against the First Mac OS X Trojan Horse”:

This Trojan horse, MP3Concept (MP3Virus.Gen), exploits a weakness in Mac OS X where applications can appear to be other types of files.

The Trojan horse’s code is encapsulated in the ID3 tag of an MP3 (digital music) file. This code is in reality a hidden application that can run on any Macintosh computer running Mac OS X.

Mac OS X displays the icon of the MP3 file, with an .mp3 extension, rather than showing the file as an application, leading users to believe that they can double-click the file to listen to it. But double clicking the file launches the hidden code, which can damage or delete files on computers running Mac OS X, then iTunes to play the music contained in the file, to make users think that it is really an MP3 file.

Apparently they’re referring to this March 20 post by Bo Lindbergh, where he presents his proof of concept virus.mp3 application:

Download and unstuff to get a Carbon/CFM application that runs on both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X. The PowerPC code fragment is stored as a general encapsulated object inside the ID3 information. It tries to locate iTunes and tell it to open the file as audio, displays an alert, and then quits. (If you’re paranoid, create a throwaway account to test it with.)

…this was in response to a thread where people were speculating on the feasibility of writing a “social engineering” virus as recently seen on other platforms.

Intego’s press release misrepresented some aspects of the issue; in particular there’s no specific “weakness in Mac OS X where applications can appear to be other types of files”: it has always been possible on Mac OS (since System 1.0 in 1984!) to write an application, put a document icon on it, and name it in a way that it appears to be a document. (More about that later on.) However, many people understood that to mean that this exploits a bug in Mac OS X. Even such a usually well-informed site as MacFixit fell into this trap, reporting that:

…the OS X Finder can be fooled to represent an application as a file. This occurs because the Finder depends on two different sources of information for how to display an object: it uses both file type/creator codes, for compatibility with OS 9; and also can use .extensions, introduced in OS X.

In this instance, the file type is set to “application”, and the .extension is set to “file”.

This “exploit” is only one step further from simply renaming an application file with a different extension, “.mp3” for instance. The only difference is that Mac OS X can be fooled into actually launching an application based on the false file type/creator codes and .extensions – iTunes for a file with a .mp3 extension for instance.

This is quite wrong. The Finder is not fooled at all and correctly identifies the file as an application; this can be seen in both column and list view, and in the “Get Info” window. Only in icon view (does anyone use this anymore?) can the user be fooled.

In reality, the ‘APPL’ file type takes precedence over the extension, so double-clicking it launches it as an application. The MP3 icon is not generated by the Finder in response to the .mp3 extension; rather, it’s contained inside the file itself as a normal application icon – which happens to be identical to the iTunes document icon. After the application launches, it in turn launches iTunes and passes itself to iTunes. This makes use of the fact that an MP3 file consists of a sequence of data blocks, each one identified by a tag. For this particular type of application, the executable code can start anywhere inside the file’s data fork which can contain unused space both before and after the code; so from the standpoint of iTunes reading the file’s data fork, the code is hidden inside an unused part of the identification (ID3) tag’s data block.

It’s easy to check this out. Save some file (from inside TextEdit, for instance). Open it in my XRay utility, change its name to something.mp3, set its file type to ‘APPL’ and clear the creator code. After saving those changes, it will appear in the Finder as a generic application, not as an MP3 file. Double-clicking it will give the usual icon zoom-out effect but nothing will happen – and iTunes won’t be notified.

Yes, XRay erroneously will say that this file, despite being an application, will be opened by iTunes; it won’t. That would be true only if it were a Classic application, in which case it wouldn’t be run at all. I’ll have this fixed in the next version…

The day after, Intego had a new press release out, where they attempted to explain some details:

First of all, Mac OS X runs two types of applications: Cocoa and Carbon. Cocoa applications are native OS X applications, and have an .app extension. Cocoa applications are, in fact, folders containing all the bits and pieces of a program code, resources, graphics, etc. The .app extension tells Mac OS X that an application is going to run natively.

Carbon applications are different. Most Carbon programs can run under either Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X, and, for this reason, have no .app extension. The Mac OS knows they are executable programs because of two resources, carb and cfrg. The carb resource indicates that it is a Carbon application and the cfrg resource indicates the location of executable code in a file’s data fork.

This Trojan horse is, in reality, an MP3 file, to which the two resources mentioned above (carb and cfrg) have been added. In addition, the ID3 tag of the MP3 file contains the actual code of the Trojan horse and the cfrg resource contains a pointer to that location in the file’s data fork.

Not at all. Firstly, Carbon applications, too, can be bundled and have the .app extension; just look at any recent Adobe or Macromedia program for an example. Single-file applications are recognized first by the ‘APPL’ file type and then further defined by several resources in the resource fork.

Single-file applications can be in several formats. Legacy 68K Classic applications (like ResEdit) have ‘CODE’ resources where the executable code is; the data fork can be empty or can contain anything at all. In the old days, it would have been easy to write an application that had a deceptive name and icon, and valid data for some document format in its data fork. As soon as Apple Events came out, convincing another application to open the data fork would have been easy too – except that most applications in those days would also check the file type and reject any ‘APPL’.

When the PowerPC came out, ‘CODE’ resources were deprecated and code was moved into the data fork; it used a new format called PEF (Preferred Executable Format). PowerPC code could come in several “code fragments”, so they were indexed from a ‘cfrg’ resource – that’s why these applications are also called CFM (Code Fragment Manager) apps. This resource is a list of code fragments and for each one it contains (among other data) the length of each fragment and its displacement within the data fork. Of course, normally there’s only one fragment which starts at zero. So, the programmer is perfectly free to put other stuff into the data fork as long as it doesn’t interfere with the parts that contain executable code. With a tagged data format such as MP3, TIFF, GIF, QuickTime (and so on…) that’s easy to do; just include the code into a tag data block that’s unused, or invalid, or reserved for comments. I used this technique in a dictionary application I wrote some years ago; the database is embedded into an unused part of the data fork.

When Mac OS X came out, the old Classic programming interfaces were redone into what became known as Carbon. To distinguish Carbon applications that could run natively on Mac OS X from the Classic apps, the ‘carb’ resource was defined. When it is present, the application is known to use the Carbon interface.

The native Mac OS X executable format, for a variety of reasons, is not PEF but Mach-O. Although most Mach-O applications are of the bundled variety, you can also write single-file Mach-O apps (AppleScript Studio can generate such applications). These are very similar to the CFM apps described above, except that there is no ‘carb’ resource and the code is indexed by a ‘CFRg’ resource instead. By the way, several people are proposing fiddling with the “executable” permission bits on downloaded files. That won’t work; Mach-O applications need them to be set, and they’re just ignored on CFM applications.

Coming back to the Intego press release, I think they have it the wrong way around. The sample application is a normal CFM app with several resources (not just ‘cfrg’ and ‘carb’). The writer added MP3 data blocks to its data fork and shifted the displacement in the ‘cfrg’ resource accordingly.

Now let’s look at the bundled application format. It’s actually a folder with the .app extension (which is always hidden by the Finder) and a certain folder structure. The actual executable can be PEF or Mach-O – it can even be a dual-fork file – but it’s hidden a few levels down in the folder, and other subfolders can contain anything whatsoever. So, it would be easy to write a Cocoa application called (the .app would be hidden), define the application’s icon to be an MP3 document icon, and the application could then pass an actual MP3 file to iTunes when it executes.

All those formats – except for the bundled format – depend on the resource forks and file types to work. So usually, unless you download a deceitful application in .bin, .sit or .dmg format, the resource fork goes away and you’re left with a simple data fork.

So. Let’s see what we have so far:

  • You can name an application anything and have it show any icon you wish. Always could.
  • You can code an application to do anything, even harmful or deceitful things.
  • The Finder will always show if it’s an application – but it can’t protect you from misleading icons.
  • If you download such an application over a browser, file types, resource forks, or folder structures won’t be properly preserved unless it’s in an encoded form such as .bin, .zip, .sit or .dmg.
  • If you get such an application as an e-mail attachment, most attachment formats will preserve resource fork and file type, but most e-mail clients will present an alert when you double-click on an application that came in as an attachment.
  • Nevertheless, if there’s a deceitful document icon and an enticing name the user may double-click on the application even if there’s no extension at all.

In sum, any application can be a Trojan, but the user has to be careless to be affected. Now let’s look at what can be done. Apple has published a cautious statement saying that they’re aware of the issue and “investigating”. Intego, Symantec and other antivirus makers have announced that their latest upgrades detect that particular application. I suppose they detect non-zero offsets in the ‘cfrg’ resource and emit a warning; however, this will of course catch many legitimate applications (such as the dictionary I mentioned earlier). But as we’ve seen, even a Cocoa application can be deceitful.

What can the user do, then? Standard cautions apply. Don’t download applications from unknown sources. Check data files in the Finder to see if the “kind” field says “Application”. Don’t trust file icons on downloaded files. Don’t double-click on files you’ve downloaded; either drag the file onto the application you want to use it with or use the “Open With” contextual menu (or my Zingg! contextual menu) to open it in a specific application. Don’t trust antivirus programs either, as they will either give you too many false positives or a false feeling of security. Disable automatic unstuffing, unzipping or running of downloaded items.

What could Apple do? Options are limited here. Recall that this is not a Finder or Launch Services bug, so there’s no obvious fix. I see the following possibilities:

1) Dave Schroeder says on MacNN:

The only way for Apple to “fix” this would be to universally visually identify executable applications in some fashion.

I’ve seen this suggestion somewhere else too, but couldn’t recall the URL. Mac OS X could overlay a badge over any application icon, like it already does with aliases and locked files. The downside is that this would be visible only in the Finder and not be easily visible in all but the icon view… and there adding an “(application)” text tag might be more appropriate. And overlaying a huge red “caution” badge would probably be met with howls of protest from icon designers icon_smile.gif.

2) Apple (or someone) could patch LaunchServices to throw up a warning when a previously unregistered application is executed. This could be general, suppressed for applications in the standard /Applications folders, or even be shown only for certain folders… perhaps the user could mark certain folders (such as the default download folder) as not allowing applications to be run. This would probably catch most sneaky applications, at the cost of some extra work for the user. A ready-made alternative would be to extend the “Limitations” tab in the System Preferences to administrators.

3) Apple (or someone) could patch LaunchServices to check the application’s extension and see if another app is already claiming to handle this extension. This is already done for Classic applications, mainly for the special case of Classic .smi applications, which were self-mounting disk images but now are handled as files by the disk mounting utility. They would have to ignore a hidden .app extension if present and do some other extra checking. This might slow application launching down a little and would not, of course, catch Trojans that have a document icon and no extension.

On the other hand, most proposals I’ve so far read on the net are impractical, such as:

  • Turn off executable permission flags by default (with umask or some other way): wouldn’t affect CFM Trojans.
  • Deprecate CFM applications completely: will kill Adobe and Macromedia (and hundreds of others) and won’t affect Mach-O Trojans.
  • Disallow extensions in application names: will kill compatibility with many applications who put version numbers in the name, and won’t affect extensionless Trojans.
  • Remove the resource fork of suspicious files: will work against single-file Trojans but not against bundled ones.
  • Wait for antivirus software to catch up: unrealistic, as they usually scan for certain binary patterns, and there’s no general pattern to Trojans. They can catch specific programs after the fact, but not pre-emptively.

Summing up, a “social engineering” trojan application is not a new concept, but now that attention has been called to it, we may begin to see malicious implementations of it, more’s the pity.