In defense of «macOS 10.15 Vista»

With the release of macOS 10.15 Catalina, people are all up in arms about the additional security popups, comparing it to what happened when Windows Vista introduced UAC and its constant prompting for Administrator permission.

I can understand where people are coming from, I do have a slightly contrarian opinion which I would like to voice here as this requires more space than what a comment field on some third-party site offers me.

First, after you read the article I linked above, keep in mind that while these prompts after the first boot after the upgrade are certainly very annoying, there’s a difference to Windows Vista and later:

UAC constantly prompts for elevation when elevation is needed, but the macOS permission given out with the prompts is persistent. Once you have authorized an application, the authorization remains and the same prompt will not appear for the same application.

The screenshot presented in the original article happens after the first boot after the upgrade when a lot of applications are launched the first time. None of the prompts seen in the screenshots will ever appear again.

Blanket permission

OK. But the prompts are still annoying. Isn’t there a way how the OS could ask ahead of time and the user could blanket allow all requests?

That would be cool but it could not possibly work without requiring changes to be made to applications: The applications installed on your machine expect to be able to get access to the things the OS now prompts for permission. In most cases, this even involves synchronous API calls, so the application is suspended while the OS is waiting for user input on the permission prompt.

Finally, knowing ahead of time what APIs an application is going to use is impossible to know, so it’s impossible to list the things an application needs ahead of time. You could run static analysis on a binary, but it would be full of false positives (scaring the user with accesses an application doesn’t need) and false negatives (still showing dialogs).

For an ahead-of-time permission request, an app would need to declare the permissions it needs and then also be prepared for API calls to fail, even though they used to always succeed (and might not even have an option to signal an error to the caller). This means apps need to be updated.

And you know what: At least for some of the features (namely filesystem related things), such a declaration is now possible via the application’s .plist file though, guess what, nobody updated their applications for catalina yet


Fine, so the apps aren’t updated yet. Why isn’t there a way for me to turn this off?

There is a way though: If you boot from the recovery partition (by holding Cmd-R while turning the machine on), you can configure system integrity prevention and gatekeeper to your liking using the command line tool csrutil

Macs with system integrity prevention disabled will not to any of this prompting.

Oh – but disabling system integrity prevention is a security issue? Well – so is letting applications roam free on your disk, control other windows or read keystrokes not sent to themselves.

Oh – but why do I have to reboot to disable this? I want an UI to be able to do so in the running system. If you allow this, then «helpful» applications will silently do that for you which means Apple wouldn’t even had to bother implementing SIP to begin with.

Ok. But why does it have to be such a complicated command-line tool? In order to protect users from themselves. This is a very powerful sledgehammer. With great power comes great responsibility and by making the steps required as complicated as possible, the likelihood it’s going to give somebody pause before blindly following the steps presented by the «Flash Player Installer» increases.

In conclusion

I think the prompts are annoying, but once you’ve gone though the initial flood, they appear very rarely. For me it was a mild inconvenience, but even though I consider myself a somewhat technical user, I love the protection of SIP. In light of ever more devious dark patterns and phishing attempts (that last link was on HN the same day as the article complaining about Catalina, btw).

Longer-term I wish that privacy sensitive APIs will all get asynchronous and will all require declaration ahead of time (like Android – but there, people are complaining too) and I wish that applications would update to these APIs or be forced into adopting them (causing another slew of articles about Apple breaking thousands of old applications), but in the mean time, I’m gladly accepting a prompt here and then if it means I’m harder to phish and harder to have my data exfiltrated from.

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