The MacOS System Permission Dialog

Computer users are frequently asked to enter passwords. They are often confused by these requests. Their two most common questions are:

  • Which of my many passwords does it want?
  • Is it legitimate and safe to enter my password here?

The MacOS System Permission Dialog can help you with the answers.

Which Password does it want?

When you see a dialog similar to this, you know it is from your own Mac. It wants either the username and password that you use to sign onto your Mac at startup, or the credentials of an administrator account on the computer.

Installer is trying to install new software. Enter an administrator's name and password to allow this.

So, don’t enter your iCloud password, or the password to any of your other on-line accounts. You should use a username and password for the Mac that you are sitting in front of at the moment.

The details of this dialog may vary. It might say Installer, or some other program, and the wording may vary depending on the situation.

Is it safe?

How do you know it is safe to enter your account password in this dialog? With MacOS, Apple controls the type of dialog boxes and windows that programs are allowed to display. Programs are not allowed to display windows without title bars. That is reserved for system dialogs. Apps can ask the system to display dialogs on their behalf, and text from the App may be included in the dialog, but the overall dialog is controlled by MacOS. You will notice that these system permission dialogs do not have title bars at the top. The usual red, yellow and green dots are not present.

MacUpdater wants permission to update. Enter an administrator's name and password to allow this.

This could still be spoofed to an extent. After all, you are looking at such a dialog box right now, displayed on a web page. Would it be safe to enter your password here? No. Web pages can and do display whatever they want, as do application programs.

Although they will probably pop up in front of some other window, legitimate system dialog boxes can be dragged to the desktop, where they will display in front of your desktop pattern, without any title bar, as seen above. Malicious web sites or programs cannot duplicate this behavior.

However, to make it tricky, you may have to grab them by the very top of the window, where the title bar would be, in order to be able to move them.

The other safety test is really up to you. Even though the dialog itself is legitimate, it may be asking you for a permission you don’t want to grant. For installer permissions, only grant permission if you are knowingly in the process of installing or updating a program. Don’t agree to install a program just because a web site told you to.

Think twice before giving programs special permissions. Does a word game legitimately need permission to access your microphone and camera? Probably not. You shouldn’t grant it unless there is some real, unusual reason.

Administrator privileges are required to make changes to CCC backup tasks. Enter your password to allow this.
Carbon Copy Cloner asking for Administrator Privileges

Above, the application Carbon Copy Cloner is asking for Administrator Privileges. This is a very powerful and sweeping request. You should trust the program and it should have a very good reason before granting this request. Carbon Copy Cloner has a long and good reputation, and it is performing system-level functions, so I choose to give it permission.

There is an exception to every rule. The legitimate dialog below from the System Settings app cannot be moved or dragged. Because it appears in the context of System Settings (a built-in and integral part of MacOS) I trust it anyway.

Privacy & Security is trying to modify your system settings. Enter your password to allow this.

I hope this discussion has given you some useful hints about entering passwords on your Mac. I hope the computer elves were good to you this Christmas and happy New Year to you.

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