Cast your mind back to September of 1999, when we reported on a highly publicized move by the U.S. Army to transition its primary Web server from Windows NT to Power Macintosh G3s running WebSTAR (then from StarNine Technologies, now owned by 4D). The reason was simple: the Army’s home page had been hacked and modified in embarrassing ways, and even though the FBI arrested a teenager in connection with the incident, the Army addressed the problem in part by switching away from the insecure Windows NT.
Although 1999 seems an eternity ago, some things never change, and today the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it would be standardizing all of its computing functions on Macs running Mac OS X. As with the Army’s decision back in 1999, the reason is security. Even though Microsoft continues to block holes in Windows, we’ve seen an ever-increasing number of worm and virus epidemics that have turned millions of Windows-based PCs into zombie spam generators and resulted in many billions of dollars of damage and cleanup costs.
Therein lies the difference since 1999. Although DHS remains concerned about the security of its internal and external Web sites, the real worry today is that the entire department could be crippled by a virulent Windows worm or virus. The Army was merely embarrassed by their Web site being modified, but a worm-based attack on DHS computers could seriously compromise the agency’s ability to respond to a terrorist attack. DHS has been particularly concerned about such attacks, issuing an alert in March about a Windows program called Phatbot that brings peer-to-peer networking concepts to malicious software.
Needless to say, the announcement is good news for Apple Computer, since it will entail the purchase of hundreds of thousands of Macintosh systems. Apple stock rose $4.01 on the announcement as Wall Street took account of the future earnings.
It’s important to remain realistic about the effects of DHS switching to Mac OS X. In the past, Macs have been largely free of worms and viruses at least in part because Macs weren’t generally used in "interesting" places (interesting, that is, to the sort of people who write malicious software). Targets don’t get much more prominent than DHS, and I fully expect to see more hacking effort aimed against Macs in the near future. Apple is not unaware of this possibility either, and has already started advertising for additional security engineers, as evidenced by the job posting below (Apple ID required for login).
On the balance, though, I think this is a positive move. Particularly with Microsoft’s efforts to monopolize the ISP market (see Glenn Fleishman’s article later in this issue), announcements like this are necessary for Apple to keep from being entirely marginalized. Increased use in government, particularly in situations with sensitive data, will also likely advance the Mac’s case in the business world, where the need for security is the one of the few things that can divert an IT manager from choosing the combination that Windows-based PCs have always provided so well: low upfront costs and guaranteed support jobs.