By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
April 14, 2012

After a series of Java security updates, Apple quietly releases an (invisible) removal tool

In a perfect world, there would be no computer viruses, worms or trojan horses — and for most of Mac OS X’s first 10 years it was blessedly malware-free.

In the world as we would like it, Apple (AAPL) would have used that decade-long grace period to prepare for the day when its flagship operating system got hit — as it inevitably would — with a major outbreak.

In the world as it actually is, a piece of malware known as the Flashback trojan — a patch for which has been available since February — caught Apple with its pants down. The rogue code had already infected roughly 1% of the Macs in use — an estimated 600,000 machines — before Apple did anything about it.

By then, the company was scrambling — putting on the equivalent of belts and suspenders. It issued not one or two but three Java security updates between April 3 and April 12, and on Friday it gave users something that sounded like just what they had been waiting for: An official tool — one from Apple, not one they heard about on Facebook — that would safely and definitively tell them if their Mac was infected.

What Apple didn’t do was tell users that the tool existed. Not with a Software Update, not with a press release (see update below). It isn’t listed on the Mac App Store and it doesn’t show up in a search of the Apple website. And if you do somehow find and install it on your computer, it will disappear into the underlying code, making its presence known only if Flashback shows up.

If Apple is going to operate in the malware-ridden Internet as it is — as Microsoft (MSFT) has for years — a little transparency would be appreciated. Starting with an easy way to find the tool that will locate and eradicate infections as they appear.

For the record, you can download the Flashback Malware Removal Tool here.

UPDATE: A reader reports that the tool did show up as a Software Update on one of his Macs. He may not have installed Java on that particular Mac. The stand-alone utility, according to Apple’s documentation, was designed for OS X Lion users without Java. CNET‘s Topher Kessler suggests that the tool was made to address “earlier variants of the malware that these users might have encountered.”

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