9:55 am

Macs Still Safe From Viruses

Lots of news items about Mac viruses this week, despite the fact that no new virus was involved in any of the news.
It seems that an old tech note about using multiple anti-virus software on Macs was taken as an official word that Apple is now recommending the use of anti-virus software on OS X. It looks like the first mention might have been in a Washington Post column on Dec. 1. And then it was picked up by at least 100 other journalists and bloggers.
But the recommendation was actually an Apple knowledge base article that was a year old, and simply had a modification date shown as November 21. The article was very vague, and simply states: “Apple encourages the widespread use of multiple antivirus utilities so that virus programmers have more than one application to circumvent, thus making the whole virus writing process more difficult.”
But what does that mean? Does it mean that YOU should be using multiple AV utilities? Or does “widespread use” mean that Apple encourages many vendors to provide AV utilities. Certainly the second one makes the most sense.
If there was one Windows AV program that everyone used, then virus creators would simply build viruses that would circumvent that one program. But because there are dozens of AV Windows programs out there, all being updated by different teams, it is very hard to create a virus that gets through enough of them to cause a problem. So having more than one AV program with good marketshare makes sense.
Apple has reacted quickly to this re-reporting of its knowledge base article by removing the article and declaring it inaccurate. Apple spokesperson Bill Evans told CNET that Macs don’t need anti-virus programs because “The Mac is designed with built-in technologies that provide protection against malicious software and security threats right out of the box.”
And lets face it, there is no threat. There is no virus infecting Macs with OS X. None.
From time to time we hear about a “new Mac virus” but it always turns out to be a proof-of-concept idea by someone, or a malicious program that requires you to go through several steps and warnings before it causes any harm — hardly “viral” by definition.
Why are Macs so immune to viruses? Well, there are several reasons.
One is that the core of Mac OS X is Darwin, which includes a lot of open source code. Open source code is generally considered more secure than closed source, because it can be reviewed by any programmer or security expert who can help improve it.
Another reason is Apple’s dedication to update Mac OS X quickly whenever a possible issue arises. Several times we’ve seen proof-of-concept malicious software appear and Apple patch OS X quickly in reaction.
Of course a big reason is also marketshare. By definition a virus needs to infect others and spread. If 90% of the personal computers out there are using Windows, then it makes more sense for virus creators to target that platform.
So how long will be be safe from viruses? I think there is considerable lag in the virus world. Any time I have had to disinfect a PC, it always seems to have viruses from years past on it — ones created in 2000, 2003, or whatever. The machine I am disinfecting is also usually very out of date, using an old copy of Windows and not updated with patches properly.
So even if we saw the first real OS X virus in 2009, I think it would take years for it to become a common problem. And that would only happen if Apple decided not to react quickly and provide us with updates, which isn’t going to happen, realistically.
So, do you need to buy some AV software for your Mac? I say no. If a real threat appeared, Apple would most likely provide us with a patch and a way to remove the virus. So don’t waste your money.
AV software and the Mac vs. PC debate are heated subjects. If you agree or disagree, leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

Comments: 2 Responses to “Macs Still Safe From Viruses”

    12/3/08 @ 1:21 pm

    You don’t need to buy one, Avast home edition or ClamXAV are (or in Avast’s case appear to be) free.

    3/7/10 @ 2:06 pm

    I agree in all the years Ive owned a MAC I’ve never experienced a problem with viruses in all of the systems. Updating all the time and having to change to a newer computer every 2 or so yrs is a problem because they keep changing their software but other than that the old and new macs never needed antivirus software.

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