One of the earliest reviews of Little Snitch was posted on Mac360 back in mid-2004. Back then, this cleverly designed little utility acted like a reverse firewall, alerting Mac users to all the apps running on OS X that would phone home– open an internet connection in the background to retrieve or send data. Little Snitch was an eye opener back then because it revealed that more and more Mac applications were moving data around behind the scenes, out of sight from the Mac user.
I used Little Snitch back then, but would sometimes forget to install it whenever I purchased a new Mac, so I haven’t used it for awhile until recently. Get out your OMG emoji icons, folks, because you will not believe what is going on inside your Mac these days. Little Snitch is still around and much improved, but it still does today what it did then. Alert you to apps that try to connect to the network or internet.
Installation is simple enough. Run the installer, restart your Mac. Little Snitch begins to watch your Mac’s network connection and you get a pop up alert every time an attempt to connect to the internet is made. Every. Freaking. Time.
That means there’s a pop up alert whenever an OS X background service needs to connect. Ditto for Safari, Mail, Calendar, Messages, and other Mac apps which need a connection. Those connection attempts are to be expected, of course, but there are many, many more connections attempted by other services which are hidden in the background.
I would estimate that Little Snitch captures 10 times as many background app attempts to connect to the internet as it did originally. Not because Little Snitch is so good, but because there are more attempts being made. And we’re not just talking about the standard port 80 for browsers, or ports used for email. Websites laden with advertising also attempt to connect with the internet to who knows where (Little Snitch knows, and snitches on them), sometimes with dozens of outbound connections on a single web page.
Little Snitch has a quick option that allow an app to connect over any port at anytime and to any outside network destination. One click and you won’t get a pop up alert again for that background process. That’s perfectly good for Mail, Messages, Mac App Store, and other Apple apps which need to phone home from time to time. What gets very scary is Safari itself because Little Snitch also tracks advertisers attempts to connect and pass collected data back to network databases. A single web page might have a dozen ads, and each of those ads collects and sends data back to a network database somewhere over the internet. That means dozens and dozens of outbound connections are being made– from a single web page.
Little Snitch tells all, but all that truth can be both fearful– you don’t necessarily know what data is being transferred– and annoying, because you’re forced to view the pop up alerts and there are many; so many as to make you want to give in, and simply click the Any Connection and Forever settings. Worries that are out of sight are out of mind, right? Except that all that network activity and personal data is going somewhere.
Here’s a good test to perform. Download and install Little Snitch. Restart your Mac. Immediately Little Snitch will throw out pop up alerts, some to apps you know and love and trust– Mail, for example. And others from legitimate background services you don’t know anything about but OS X needs anyway. And the rest will be from applications on your Mac that connect to outside sources over the internet in a literal barrage of connection attempts– initially stopped by Little Snitch– that will bewilder hard core Mac users.
Tracking down some of those network connection attempts can be laborious. The Silent Mode in Little Snith lets you decide later whether or not to accept a network connection attempt. The Research Assistant lets you find out which services do what. You can really get your Mac geek on by turning on the incoming Firewall which improves security. And, of course, you can get your digital fingernails dirty with system process rules, ruleset analyzer, temporary rule options, and even domain based rules which filter some of what Little Snitch does by identifying network connection culprits.
Here’s what I’m willing to bet. You’ll be shocked at the number of outgoing connections made by various apps on your Mac, and stunned by the connections that advertisers attempt to make just using Safari (or any Mac browser). I was surprised and I’ve been using the Mac daily for more than 30 years. It’s scary. You won’t believe what is going on inside your Mac these days.