Scott's Weblog The weblog of an IT pro specializing in cloud computing, virtualization, and networking, all with an open source view

It's a Matter of Privacy, Not Security

Daniel Jalkut, in his Red Sweater Blog, recently posted that he had detected (via Little Snitch) some network activity from Dashboard back to Apple’s web site. Upon further investigation, he found that the activity was apparently tied to this one-line entry in the release notes for 10.4.7:

You can now verify whether or not a Dashboard widget you downloaded is the same version as a widget featured on (www.apple.com) before installing it.

To me, that doesn’t do an adequate job of informing the end user that the computer will be contacting Apple on a regular basis to verify the installed widgets. What it says is that the OS can (i.e., has the ability to), upon the user’s request, verify a widget before installing it. Those are two different things.

A lot of the comments on Daniel’s entry are blasting him for posting this information, stating that it’s a matter of security, that Apple is providing functionality to help protect Mac users against malicious code. OK, I’ll grant that the ability to verify the authenticity of a downloaded widget is a good idea. I’ll even grant that the ability to manually, whenever I feel like it, ask my computer to verify the authenticity of the currently installed widgets is a good idea. I’ll even go so far as to grant that having a checkbox somewhere that says, “Periodically check my installed widgets for authenticity” or something similar would be a good idea.

What’s not a good idea is adding a “phone home” feature that users (apparently) can’t disable and that can’t be configured, controlled, or adjusted. What’s further not a good idea is misrepresenting this functionality in the release notes. Finally, what’s not a good idea is for Mac users to confuse security with privacy.

This isn’t a matter of security. Most everyone agrees that having the ability to check widgets to make sure they are safe is a good idea. The problem here is that our computers are now communicating with Apple in a way that we did not authorize, were not informed about, and can not control. That makes it a matter of privacy, not security. And yes, while the communication right now is benign, will it always be so? What will the Mac users do when it is not benign?

I posted a comment to the article to see what methods, if any, are available to disable this functionality. As soon as I get some additional information, I’ll post it here.

UPDATE: This safety check can be disabled by using the command:

sudo launchctl unload -w /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/ 
com.apple.dashboard.advisory.fetch.plist

(This should all be typed on a single line.) In addition, it’s important to note that the dashboardadvisoryd process does not send any information to Apple currently; it only fetches information from Apple and compares it to the list of currently installed widgets. Also, in the light of the extensive information shared with Apple as a result of using Software Update (an aspect I did not consider originally), I retract most of my concerns regarding privacy. I do, however, stand by the statement that Apple should have been more informative and forthcoming with information on exactly how this work, as well as given users a means whereby to control it.

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