Is Windows 7 More Secure Than Apple's Snow Leopard?

Dennis Faas's picture

A new ethical hacking contest, called "Pwn2Own" is set to get under way this coming March 24, 2010, with awards of $100,000 in prize money. Predictions on which operating systems will be first to fall prey to hackers are already being heard; according to the event's organizer, the speediest, easiest hack will almost surely be on Mac's new Snow Leopard.

Fundamental Beliefs: Mac Vs PC Security

For years, it's been said that one of the main reasons why consumers have purchased Macs is because of the popular belief that Mac computers are more secure than PCs running MS Windows. Many believe this to be true because there are in fact very few reported instances of hackers hacking Macs.

Others would argue, however, that Macs aren't necessarily more secure -- it's simply that there are more Windows PCs to hack in the world than there are Macs, hence a bigger return on a hacker's investment of time, which translates to more money earned.

Macs Have Poor Showing at Hacker Contest

At the last Pwn2Own in 2009, it took just five seconds for a security researcher to hijack a Mac by using vulnerabilities in the system's browser, Safari. Two years ago, a pro hacker required less than two minutes to compromise a MacBook Air, at the time Apple's most exciting new product. That too was through a flaw in the Safari web browser.

So, the big question this year is this: which operating system is more secure -- Windows 7 or Snow Leopard?

Mac Security Not "On the Same Level" as Win7

According to Pwn2Own's organizer Aaron Portnoy, new features in Windows 7 combined with continued weaknesses in Apple's operating systems make the answer fairly clear. "Safari will be the first to go. [Safari will] be on Snow Leopard, which isn't on the same level as Windows 7," Portnoy was reported to have said. (Source:

Still, the debate is a heated and active one. Security expert Charlie Miller, for one, doesn't think Windows 7 is any more secure than Snow Leopard -- even though he's the one who hacked Mac operating systems the last two years.

"Unlike previous years, I'd say Safari isn't significantly easier than the browsers on Windows," Miller said. "I say this because Snow Leopard finally has DEP [Data Execution Prevention]. Also, because at Black Hat DC, Dion Blazakis showed how to defeat DEP in [Windows] browsers. The only difference is that Safari has a bigger attack surface, and includes, for example a PDF reader (Preview) and Flash."

Other critics say that even though threats to Macs increase as their market share creeps up, you simply can't ignore the fact that PCs are subject to far more threats. At the end of the day, says security expert Kenneth Van Wyk, "I'm more secure on a Mac than I was on Windows." (Source:

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