security: keeping OS X’s nose out of your data


Over the last few years, Apple have made great strides in protecting users from losing their data, be it from system failure, software crashes, accidental deletion, disk corruption or just the plain negligence of forgetting to save before quitting. We now have Time Machine for automatic backups, application savedStates and Resume for crashes, and Autosave and Versions for negligence. As if all that wasn’t enough, iCloud is probably syncing your browser tabs, photos, and pretty much anything else you want straight up to Apple’s servers and pushing it back down the pipe to your other devices as and when needed. All this is a good thing, right?

Well, probably. For most people, most of the time. But not always. The security implications of having your OS (and even Apple) copying everything you type, open or edit on your computer can sometimes be disturbing. What if you need to open a confidential pdf in Preview but are required to make sure (either morally or contractually) that all copies of that document are destroyed after viewing? No one wants to be zeroing their hard-drive every week; and what if you need to edit a Pages or Numbers document but don’t want the changes pushed to the cloud? Turning iCloud on and off is no 2-second job and can have implications for your other workflows and data. Making duplicates to save locally risks having copies stored in the hidden .DocumentRevisions-v100 folder.

Use a secure USB
With USB flash drives now coming in at large GB sizes and relatively low cost, one solution is to load and delete sensitive files via a USB. Wiping a flash drive takes considerably less time than wiping a hard disk and keeps your sensitive data nicely partitioned from everything else, but there are problems. First, there’s always the danger of negligence; in the heat of deadlines or other pressures, we might just forget to wipe that disk; second, there’s the danger of loss or theft; and third, there’s always the possibility of deep recovery by people with the appropriate tools and know-how. Some of those issues can be mitigated by encrypting the drive using Disk Utility.

Set up a RAM disk on OS X
Using an encrypted USB can be a great idea, but it both takes time to create and is not always unobtrusive. If another party should get physical access to your USB, the fact that it’s encrypted also tells interested parties that you might have secrets to hide. A faster and less conspicuous solution could be to use a RAM disk, a portion of your RAM memory that is partitioned and formatted just like any other disk. RAM disks were once common on Macs when peripherals were considerably slower at loading data, but with the speed of modern drives few people bother with them anymore. However, a RAM disk has another advantage apart from being the fastest way to read and write data: its entirely non-persistent. There’s no way of recovering something that was once in RAM once that memory has been flushed.

A 0.5GB RAM disk

A 0.5GB RAM disk

Making, using and deleting a RAM disk is incredibly simple. Here I’ve created one that’s a half a gigabyte. To create it, you just need a one liner in Terminal. Triple-click the following line and copy and paste it directly into a Terminal window:

diskutil erasevolume HFS+ "ramdisk" `hdiutil attach -nomount ram://1165430`

After you hit ‘return’, you’ll see a new disk icon on your desktop and in the Finder sidebar. You can now use the RAM disk just like any other disk. Use it as the location to download, open or create sensitive files that you know you are going to destroy after use. You can, of course, even create copies of applications and run them from your RAM disk, too.

The RAM disk, while it exists, will behave just like any other disk, so it will have its own .Trashes directory, and its own Versions and Spotlight indexes just as all other disks do. That means you get all the comforts of OSX’s failsafes while the disk is mounted, but as soon as you eject or unmount the disk, all the Versions and Autosaves and Trashes disappear completely and unrecoverably. RAM disks are ideal for reading or editing short pieces of information (such as messages or passwords) that you want to quickly review or store before discarding without a trace.

You can eject the disk either in the usual way from within Finder or the Desktop, or you can use another Terminal line:

hdiutil detach /dev/disk1

And if you want to flush the contents of your entire RAM buffer for good measure, you can also do:

sudo purge

followed by an admin password (if you’re using any version of OS X before 10.9, you can just type ‘purge’ at the command line. No need for sudo or a password).

A word of caution, however. The strength of a RAM disk from a security point of view is simultaneously a danger from almost every other: — the volatility of RAM means you could easily lose everything in your RAM disk if any of the following occur: you eject the disk accidentally, the computer crashes, the power fails or battery runs flat, you log out or restart the computer. Keep these points in mind and only use your RAM disk for short sessions. Never store anything solely on a RAM disk if preserving the data is of importance to you.

Featured picture: OCD — security by kenns

About philastokes

Freelance Writer, Developer and Technical Communicator. Explaining the unexplainable with images, video and text. Scripting anything imaginable in Applescript, Bash, C, Objective C, Cocoa, Python and Xcode.

Posted on January 9, 2014, in Security and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on security: keeping OS X’s nose out of your data.

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