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Just was rereading Cathy Shive’s blog (prompted by a tweet from Buzz Andersen), and found her post showing some classic logos by Paul Rand.

If you’re interested in that sort of thing, here are Mario Amaya‘s mash-ups of some of those logos (and others). Worth a visit.

Nando wrote:

Well this wouldn’t work on our actual system I guess, but if you prepared the system to have an ID or other metadata for each icon, I really think it could be done. But all I want for now is to keep my day job icon_biggrin.gif

Well, I sympathize with your last sentence icon_smile.gif.

Still, there’s no way to make an ID for each icon that reliably tells if some custom isual is visually similar to a document icon already on the system. At least with the current state-of-the-art of image recognition software.

Nando wrote:

The problem really lies within the file’s data fork, once you change that you can easily have the application open a file that is not attached to it, which might not be a succesful task.

I think you’re misinformed about what’s in the data fork; the contents of that have very little to do with file-application binding. It’s just unstructured data as far as the system is concerned.

Nando wrote:

One thing that could work is have the software check if the icon it’s file holds is not the icon for another application’s file. The system has a list of the icons for each file type, so a background check on that wouldn’t take long at all, probably not over 0.3 seconds…

Unfortunately, that’s impossible. The system would have to locate all the icons from the list (usually thousands), read them (they’re usually from 32K to 64K in size) and compare all pixels with that custom icon; even so, changing one single pixel would cause the comparison to fail. It would take several minutes and be completely unreliable…

Posted by Nando:
I agree with what you’ve said from a security and development point of view, the current methods the system uses to identify the application to which a file is registered seems quite secure to me though. I’ve decided to play with some of my files, changing the extension of a .mov file to .doc, and the system would recognize it as a Quicktime movie just fine. I did that with non-apple formats, and even a document kind I created for fun, and it would open on the right application even if saved with anotehr extension.

The problem really lies within the file’s data fork, once you change that you can easily have the application open a file that is not attached to it, which might not be a succesful task. But in the case of malicious files, the icon is what really makes the confusion, as you have said on a recent post.

Custom icons are easy to apply to files, you can do it easily from Finder itself, with special applications such as IconFactory’s Pixadex or Unsanity’s Shapeshifter. The second one, as far as I know, really does play with the data forks, changing the icons from inside out, while Pixadex just applies them as a cover that is easily removable.

On either case, killing custom icons is really not a solution. First of all because it would mean a dead end to those who, like me, make a living out of that. Ask the guys from IconFactory and MacThemes Forums, they’ll probably like their Macs pretty with custom themes and icons than a “secure” one – and we know this doesn’t actually threatens anyone’s security, yet.

One thing that could work is have the software check if the icon it’s file holds is not the icon for another application’s file. The system has a list of the icons for each file type, so a background check on that wouldn’t take long at all, probably not over 0.3 seconds. If the icon is unknown, the software would ask the system “Is this a themed OS?” (something that would be set on System Preferences against Apple’s will or through Third-Party software), if it is themed, carry on with the loading, if it is not, warn the user of the possible security threat.

As complicated as this solution might sound, I don’t see any other way to keep everyone happy – and secure. So let’s just hope in 5 years the Mac is still as secure as now, it’s probably the best we can do.

Forgot to say this, but the Unsanity folks had previously posted details on a different fake icon method. This uses a “strong binding” resource to change both the icon and the application used to open a document; when the document is a malicious Terminal script, the effect is much the same as hiding an application under a document icon.

In any event, the principle is the same: forcing the Finder to display an icon different from the one ordinarily defined by the normal characteristics of the file. Both methods subvert a useful feature which was implemented with some cost.

Well, who’d have thought it. Custom icons are now a security risk, and in fact always have been, since the first Macs came out!

Just look here:

It is now still possible for hackers to construct a file that appears to be a safe file type, such as an image or movie, but is actually an application, they said…

Apple acknowledged that, despite its patch, it is still possible to make a malicious file look innocent.

and here:

However, the new “download validation” – which warns users that the file may be malicious – does not completely solve the widely touted, ‘extremely critical’ Mac OS X zero-day exploit that allows hackers to disguise malicous [sic] files as routine files, thus allowing Safari browser or other internet application to automatically unpack and execute the file.

and here:

The unresolved vulnerability is due to a problem with the Mac OS Finder, the component of the operating system used to view and organize files, […] said. The operating system assigns an identifying image, or icon, for a file based on the file extension. However, it decides which application will handle the file based on information that is stored separately from the file, called metadata…

…the problem has nagged Apple for years, yet it has not been fixed. “This vulnerability derives from the exact same flaw deep inside the OS that should have been addressed by Apple several times in the past two years.”

Yes, all this refers to custom icons, a facility introduced by the Finder since its very early releases, and which was much used (many would say over-used) in the Classic days to “customize” one’s system.

Now, it seems, custom icons have gone from being an innovation to an “extremely critical zero-day exploit”. icon_lol.gif

Also, apparently, this unsettling misfeature has appeared only “in the last two years” instead of being in place since, at least, 1990, and Apple should have done something about it as soon as it appeared – a hacker’s conspiracy, no doubt.

The last quote above (for the quoted expert’s sake, I hope he was misquoted by a clueless journalist) also repeats the widely held myth that Mac OS X only considers the file extension for obvious functions and that other, more obscure, functions are affected by the mysterious “metadata” (or sometimes it’s the other way around?), which nevertheless were wrongly implemented by the clueless newbie programmers that apparently are entrusted by Apple to write the OS’s most critical layers. Hah. By implication, it also asserts another myth, namely that custom icons – which are a type of “resources” – are stored in those eldritch metadata. Double hah.

In fact, it goes like this. Files on Mac OS X, as they were on Mac OS Classic, can contain unstructured data (in what is called the “data fork”), as well as unstructured data (in what is called the “resource fork”) as well as metadata, which is to say, data describing the file or its contents (in what is called the “directory”). In contrast, most other operating systems have only unstructured data, so there’s no concept of separate “forks” for a file, and they also usually have less varieties of metadata. So this confusion often affects people not familiar with the details of the Mac’s file system.

So, when the Finder displays the icon for a file it doesn’t check only the file extension (if any). It also checks various metadata – some of which can even cause the extension to be ignored – to index into a database of existing applications, and from that loads the appropriate icon to display. However, this icon can be overridden for a particular file by assigning a custom icon to it, which is stored in the resource fork and whose presence is announced by a flag in the metadata.

Now, application and document icons are usually assigned to minimize confusion as to what that particular application or document does or contains. As soon as custom icons were invented, we could occasionally see custom icons designed to cause confusion instead – usually as a prank, sometimes to implement special functions, even more rarely maliciously.

Still, assigning a malicious icon only affects the file’s icon itself as displayed by the Finder’s icon view (does anybody still use that?). The Finder’s information panes still show the correct file type, and everybody should check that as a matter of routine before double-clicking on any icon in the Finder. (Does anybody still do that? Apparently yes. I offer Zingg! as a more secure alternative.)

Still, the sky is not falling. Falling prey to a custom icon disguising a malicious application as a warm, fuzzy well-known document would apparently affect people who install and run everything as “root”, or as an administrator, turn most warnings and safeguards off, then ignore the message that this application is being run for the first time, then blithely furnish their administrator password when solicited. No doubt there’s a surfeit of such people, but should they run a computer unsupervised..?

So, the suggested solutions range all the way from the not-very-useful but popular “Apple should get a clue” to the radical “disable all custom icons forever”. I think a more of middle-of-the road approach would be best. There should be a Finder preference to show custom icons or not, and perhaps applications with custom icons should have a little “app” badge in one corner. I suppose this would be easy to implement with some hackery. Pity I’m too busy right now…

New time sink…

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Busy busy busy, learning the intricacies of WebKit… but even so I spent some time browsing through Kenneth Snelson‘s work, which I hadn’t heard of before. The atom section is especially entrancing. Warning: time sink! icon_wink.gif

Update: More info here.


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One of the great features of the early issued of Macmania Magazine used to be the “Macintoshico” center page – cartoons satirizing some feature of the Mac. Somehow they became sparser and sparser over the years, but the last issue featured this brilliant comeback, which I’ve translated for your appreciation:

Click on the thumbnail above to go to the full comic (warning: it’s about 800K!)

I hasten to add that I sat in the 10th row during Steve’s last keynote and I didn’t feel weird at all… icon_wink.gif

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