Apple will soon make a code rating mandatory for all applications distributed outside its own Mac App Store by new developers, a first step toward all Mac applications passing through similar reviews.
Cupertino, the California firm claimed that the process it calls "notarization" would build a safer macOS environment. "We are working with developers to create a safer Mac user experience through a process where all software, either distributed on the App Store or outside it, is signed or notarized by Apple," the company said in a April 10 message on its developer portal.
Applications delivered through the Mac App Store have long been reviewed by Apple for malicious code, and since September 201
Apple made the note sound, if not perfunctory, then absolutely short. "Notarization is not App Review," Apple told developers, citing the process the App Store software is going through. "The Apple Notary Service is an automated system that scans your software for malicious content, controls code signing issues, and returns the results to you quickly."
When users start installing a notary program, the Gatekeeper will intervene with a message that Apple has "checked it for malicious software and no one was discovered." From there, the user can either cancel the installation or continue. Gatekeeper is the OS X / macOS tool that has blocked the installation of unsigned code for the past seven years and, depending on how it is set, allows all software or only App Store purchased programs to be installed.
Apple has not shared more than what users will see related to notation. It was unclear whether there would be wide or granular settings to reduce or disable the notification option in System Preferences.
With the look of macOS 10.14.5 – the latest update for Mojave, now in preview – it is necessary for notaries for software created by developers new to deploy Apple apps, as well as for any new or updated kernel extensions. "In a future version of MacOS, notarization will be required by default for all software," Apple said in the documentation .
This "future version" may be as close as this year's MacOS 10.15, which if Apple claims Custom will be introduced in June at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) and released in September.
When Gatekeeper debuted in 2012 as part of OS X Mountain Lion, some Mac users criticized the limitations and claimed to be allowing to install what they wanted on their machines, regardless of source. The appearance of the Mac App Store the previous year had raised similar concerns. It would not be surprising if Apple's notification system gets some pushback as well.
"To a degree," said Chet Wisniewski, a lead researcher at the security vendor Sophos, when asked about code reviews and installation controls making users safer. "It's not a perfect process, but without [such safeguards] criminals mustn't try very hard." In other words, practices such as Apple's, either the Gatekeeper model or notarization, are valuable because they force malicious actors to work for their poor winnings.
"And people have choices," added Wisniewski. If they don't like the extra controls Apple puts in place, the users have the opportunity. "They can go to Windows. Or Linux."
He doubted that it would happen and pointed to Apple's even more restrictive rules on iOS, where all the apps must originate from the App Store. "People look like their iPhone," Wisniewski said. "The App Store model shows how effective this can be."