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macOS’s background task management vulnerable to malware

by John Biggs

In the world of cybersecurity, even the most robust systems can be outsmarted. This was recently demonstrated by security researcher Patrick Wardle at the DEF CON hacking conference. Wardle revealed how a cybersecurity tool integrated into macOS, known as Background Task Management, can be bypassed by malware of moderate sophistication. Background Task Management, a feature incorporated into macOS since October 2023, is designed to keep a vigilant eye on installed programs and applications. It searches for signs of persistence, a common red flag for malware presence. If it identifies apps that persistently resist termination, it alerts the user, prompting them to scan their device for potential issues.

However, Wardle discovered three methods to circumvent this tool. The first method requires root access to the device, which is somewhat self-defeating. If a malicious actor already possesses root access, they have the power to make extensive changes to the system. The other two methods, intriguingly, do not require root access and can be employed to disable the alert notifications. One method exploits a bug in the communication between the alerting system and the kernel, while the other takes advantage of the users’ capability to put processes into a dormant state. Wardle chose to present his findings at DEF CON rather than reporting them directly to Apple.

This decision was based on his previous experience with the tech giant. When the tool was first introduced, Wardle had identified several flaws and reported them to Apple. The company rectified the issues, but failed to address the underlying cause of the problem. Wardle likened the company’s response to “putting some tape on an airplane as it’s crashing,” indicating that the feature required a more comprehensive overhaul. As of now, it remains uncertain whether Apple will take action to rectify the issues highlighted by Wardle. In the meantime, it’s crucial for users to remain vigilant and employ the best endpoint security software to stay protected online.

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