Monthly Archives: July 2016

Hack That Mac 1: Who’s who

revealing Dropbox’s dirty little security hack

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 14.54.30

Update: also see Discovering how Dropbox hacks your mac

If you have Dropbox installed, take a look at System Preferences > Security & Privacy > Accessibility tab (see screenshot above). Notice something? Ever wondered how it got in there? Do you think you might have put that in there yourself after Dropbox asked you for permission to control the computer?

No, I can assure you that your memory isn’t faulty. You don’t remember doing that because Dropbox never presented this dialog to you, as it should have:


That’s the only officially supported way that apps are allowed to appear in that list, but Dropbox never asked you for that permission. I’ll get to why that’s important in a moment, but if you have the time, try this fascinating experiment: try and remove it.

Ok, you say, no problem. We all know how to do that – open the padlock, un-click the checkbox. Click the ‘-‘ button to remove it from the list. Simple, right? Look there it goes, no more Dropbox in the the Preferences panel, right?

Wrong…like a bad penny it’ll be back again before you know it. Either log out and log back in again or quit Dropbox and restart it. Dropbox will surreptitiously insert itself back in to that list AND the checkbox will be checked. That’s the magic of Dropbox for you. If you don’t want to try it for yourself, watch me do it:

That leaves a couple of questions. First, why does it matter, and second, is there any way to keep using Dropbox but stop it having access to control your computer?

There’s at least three reasons why it matters. It matters first and foremost because Dropbox didn’t ask for permission to take control of your computer. What does ‘take control’ mean here? It means to literally do what you can do in the desktop: click buttons, menus, launch apps, delete files… . There’s a reason why apps in that list have to ask for permission and why it takes a password and explicit user permission to get in there: it’s a security risk.

Interlude: Contrary to Dropbox’s completely spurious “explanation”/obfuscation here, Accessibility has nothing at all to do with granting permissions to files. Accessibility frameworks were first introduced in Mac OS X 10.2 and expanded in 10.3 to allow control of user interface items via System Events and the Processes suite. As anyone can readily see, what that allows is GUI control just as if the program or script was clicking buttons and menu items.

But perhaps you implicitly trust Dropbox to not do anything untoward. After all, they’re a big name company who wouldn’t want to upset their customers, right?

There’s two flaws in reasoning that way. One: the bigger the name, the less effect customer dissatisfaction has. Let’s face it. If a 1000 people read this post and stop using Dropbox because of it, it’s not going to make much difference to Dropbox. So assuming you can trust a “big name” company not to “feck you off’ because they might lose your business is not “smart computing”, even less smart if they figure that you’re a customer on a free plan anyway… :p (See this for more reasons why big companies in general don’t pay much attention to ethical values). Two, and more importantly, you already have hard proof that Dropbox can’t be trusted. It just overrode your and Apple’s security preferences without asking you, and – as you’ve seen if you tried to remove it and noticed its magic reappearance act – it disregards your choices and re-inserts itself even after you’ve explicitly removed it (we’ll sort this naughty behaviour out in a minute).

It matters for another reason, too. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Dropbox never does any evil on your computer. It remains the fact that the Dropbox process has that ability. And that means, if Dropbox itself has a bug in it, it’s possible an attacker could take control of your computer by hijacking flaws in Dropbox’s code. Of course, that’s entirely theoretical, but all security risks are until someone exploits them. The essence of good computer security and indeed the very reason why OSX has these kinds of safeguards in place to begin with is that apps should not have permissions greater than those that they need to do their job.

Which is the third reason why it matters: Dropbox doesn’t appear to need to have access to Accessibility features in order to work properly (update). I figured out what Dropbox was up to in October 2015. Why has it taken me this long to write about it? First, because after having reported it to Apple Product Security at that time, I wanted to see if they would force Dropbox to change this behaviour (they haven’t…yet ;)). Second, because the only way I could be sure that DB didn’t need to be in the list of apps with Accessibility privileges was to test it over a period of time. I use Dropbox across 3 different macs and an iPhone. I haven’t experienced any issues using it whatsoever while denying it access to Accessibility. Caveat: I haven’t tested Dropbox against all of OSX’s Accessibility features, but certainly for a ‘standard’ set up of OS X, it is not needed – and, let me repeat, even if it were needed for some particular feature to work, Dropbox should have explicitly asked for this permission, like every other app, and obeyed the user’s decision to revoke that permission when removing it from the list of allowed apps.

There really isn’t any excuse for Dropbox to ride roughshod over users’ security and preference choices. So that leaves us with just one last question: how to get Dropbox out of there? The short answer is that you first quit Dropbox, then remove it from the Accessibility pane, then delete the DropboxHelperTools folder (see my procedure here). Relaunch Dropbox, but now you hit ‘Cancel’ when it asks you for an admin password:

Stop! Choose 'Cancel' !!!

Stop! Choose ‘Cancel’ !!!

The dialog box apparently lies (again, still trusting this big name firm?) when it says Dropbox won’t work properly and clearly deceives because this is NOT the dialog box that Dropbox should be showing you to get access into Accessibility. Indeed, even with your admin password, it still shouldn’t be able to get into Accessibility. Clearly Dropbox’s coders have been doing some OS X hacking on company time.

Now, there’s a slight catch. So long as you never give Dropbox your admin password, it won’t be able to install itself in Accessibility and you can keep on using Dropbox just as you have done before. However, it will throw up this dialog box on every restart of the machine or relaunch of Dropbox. So the catch is that you have to actually notice what’s asking you for your password and not just blindly throw your password into the box without looking. :O

But you shouldn’t be doing that anyway, of course, cos that’s not good security practice… 😉 , but given that the dialog box looks just like*** an authentic password request from the OS itself, that may be a habit you have to train yourself into.

Slightly annoying, but not as annoying as having an app hack your mac (of course, if you forget, you’ll have to go uninstall Dropbox again, remove it from Accessibility, then reinstall it).


***But not “like” enough – note the ‘Type your password…’ sentence is both misaligned and is spaced into a separate paragraph, unlike genuine authentication requests from OS X. The phrasing of the first sentence “your computer password” is also very “un-OS X”.

Further Reading: Discovering How Dropbox Hack’s Your Mac

Last edit: 21 Sept, 21:35 ICT.


applescript: file & folder handlers

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 17.06.40

Here’s a few of
the AppleScript handlers I use for getting contents of folders (examples 1 & 2), or for getting the text of a file (example 3).

In all three cases, you give the handler a path string in POSIX form, e.g, ~/Desktop or (for example 3), ~/Desktop/sometext.txt.

In example 1, what you get back is a list of the item names in the folder. It doesn’t include hidden or invisible files.

In example 2, what you get back is a record of all the items and their properties. This can be an immensely useful and powerful handler.

In example 3, what you get back is a text variable whose value is the complete text of the file.

Hope these come in as handy for you folks as they have for me!

Click here to get the handlers from my pastebin.

Enjoy! 🙂

Note: The getFileContents() handler requires OSX 10.10 or higher.

Using Handlers Pt1

Using Cocoa in AppleScript

applescript: easiest way to GUI script


Script Debugger is third-party software available from here.

Disclaimer: I have no financial or any other compensatory connection with the developers.

Script Debugger 6: the complete review

SD Shot 2

It feels like cheating. When you’ve spent pretty much your entire AppleScripting life behind the wheel of Apple’s austere Script Editor application, taking Script Debugger 6 out for a 20-day spin feels like someone’s let you in on a secret you’re not supposed to know. Hurdles you’ve taught yourself to clear – through considerable effort, frustration and no small amount of bloody-minded tenacity – are removed before you get to them; obstacles you’ve habitually steered around or avoided have disappeared, and dark holes of AppleScript mystery appear, in the light shone on them by SD6, to be not the menacing entities you once feared but new friends that offer ways to do things faster and more effectively. The secret that Script Debugger seems to lay bare is that AppleScripting doesn’t have to be as painful as we’ve been conditioned to believe. And that does feel like a cheat. Read the full review…

learning the Terminal: Part Three

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 15.24.53
It’s been a while since we last posted about Terminal tips and tricks, but a question popped up today about how to discover what tools are available on the command line.

Most of the tools you use in Terminal are located in /usr/bin, and we can use a nifty little tool from there to find out about all its friends. The whatis tool gives you a one-liner description of what a tool does. If it looks interesting, you can find out more about the tool by typing man and the tool’s name on the command line to see its help manual.

On my current machine, there’s over 1000 tools in /usr/bin, and life is just too short to go through them all doing whatis on each and every one, so we’ll combine a bit of command line power with some AppleScript magic, and produce a nice, easy-to-scroll output of all the summaries like the one in the screenshot above.

Copy the script below (or from my pastebin here) and paste it into the Script Editor (/Applications/Utilities/Script Click the ▶︎ button to run it.

This script took about 1m 30 seconds to run on my machine, but you only need to run it once then save the output. Browse or search through it at your own convenience. 🙂

The script will choose TextWrangler for display if you have it installed; if not, it’ll default to TextEdit. The display is much nicer in TextWrangler, but if you’re stuck with TextEdit, turning off ‘Check Spelling’ in TextEdit will aid readability.

# start 


This script produces a summary of all the CLI tools 

in /usr/bin and displays it in a text document 


set noDocsList to {}

on extractDescription(aText)

repeat with i from 1 to count of items in aText

set this_item to item i of aText

if this_item contains "NNAAMMEE" then

set r to item (i + 1) of aText


set o to offset of "" in r

set short_r to text (o + 1) thru -1 of r

set r to short_r

end try

return r

end if

end repeat

end extractDescription

set theDescriptions to return & return & "**********************************" & return & "SUMMARY OF CLI TOOLS (Version 2)" & return & "**********************************" & return & return & return

tell application "System Events"

set theItems to name of every file of folder "bin" of folder "usr" of startup disk

end tell

repeat with i from 1 to count of theItems

set this_item to item i of theItems

set n_item to length of this_item


set what_is to do shell script "whatis " & this_item

if text 1 thru n_item of what_is is this_item and what_is does not contain "nothing appropriate" then

set theDescriptions to theDescriptions & return & what_is & return



set getMan to paragraphs of (do shell script "man " & this_item)

set desc to extractDescription(getMan)

set what_is to this_item & tab & tab & tab & tab & desc

set theDescriptions to theDescriptions & return & what_is & return

on error

set end of my noDocsList to this_item & return

end try

end if

end try

end repeat

set theApp to "TextEdit"

tell application "Finder"

if exists POSIX file "/Applications/" then

set theApp to "TextWrangler"

end if

end tell

set theDescriptions to theDescriptions & return & return & return & "The following tools do not have any documentation: " & return & return & noDocsList

tell application theApp


make new document

set front document's text to my theDescriptions

end tell

# EOF 

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