My First Mac Archive

This article was first published on 2008-07-25. Due to the age of this article, it is included here for archive purposes only.

Short answer: No.

If you are switching over from the Windows world, this idea might seem uncomfortable. But as you get used to your new Mac, viruses will start seeming like Bad Things That Happen to Other People. Namely, Windows people.

(Disclaimer: I’m not a computer security professional, but I do try to keep abreast of these issues as best I can.)

But I’ve heard about new Mac viruses in the news

What’s the deal with these, you must be thinking. Here’s the thing to know as of Summer 2008: The Mac can be vulnerable just like other OS’s. It’s just that people are not writing and spreading Mac viruses and Mac users aren’t being infected by any. Does this mean it’s impossible? No. It just means that viruses are not a reality that we Mac users have to face right now.

There have been demonstrations of possible Mac viruses by security professionals. They exist, but they are usually just a proof of concept. These often catch on with over-hyped importance in the media so it often appears as if there is a threat. Also, Mac anti-virus companies will often seize on this news to try to make the threat credible, when what they are really trying to do is sell their software.

What about Windows Viruses?

Windows viruses can only bring down your Mac if you are running Windows on your Mac. And it will likely be contained in the Windows environment. Another thing to keep in mind is that a Mac can spread Windows viruses in files and emails like a Windows computer, but it won’t be effected by them. So be aware of suspicious files and forwarding emails with random attachments to Windows users.

Does this mean I am safe using my Mac?

No, your Mac is not safe if you are connected to the internet. You are safe from viruses, but not from Trojan Horses and Phishing schemes. A Trojan horse is "a computer program that appears benign, but is actually designed to harm or compromise the system it is installed on." -Wikipedia.

These programs need your help to download and run on your computer. You download them through some sort of action on your part. Usually this is by tricking you by mislabeling a program from an unreliable site.

In the same way, Phishing is getting you to enter information on a malicious website by tricking you into thinking it’s a legitimate website. The easiest way to defeat this attack is to NEVER click on a link from an email you received asking for a response from you. If you bank at Bank of America, never click on a Bank of America link in an email. ALWAYS type in your browser.

What should I do to minimize my risk?

There’s a nice list of things to do to protect your Mac on called Basic Mac OS X Security. The page is a couple years old, but the advice holds true today. Personally, I only do Rule #3: Turn off Services You Do Not Use. Basically, this involves going to your Sharing prefs and only checking the boxes you need. Here’s mine:

In particular, stay away from the "Remote…" items.

If you are concerned about Phishing schemes, you may want to use Firefox 3 as it has warnings when you are at a known Phishing site. Apple should hustle and add this feature to Safari.

So why no Mac viruses, anyway?

Many people have put forth various reasons why there aren’t any real Mac viruses. Some say Apple does a great job of limiting the Mac’s exposure. Some say the UNIX that Macs are built on has been time tested. The reason I think is the main factor is that Macs are just not worth Bad Guy’s hassle when Windows provides a larger, easier target. It’s a matter of market share. As long as Windows dominates and still has vulnerabilities, it will be more attractive to Bad Guys.

What concerns me about this theory is that Macs are really on the upswing, gaining market share quarter by quarter. I’m not saying the Mac will displace Windows anytime soon, but it might get big enough to be attractive. But I’ve been following this subject for years and I’ve heard year after year from Windows defenders, "Just you wait. You Mac guys will get yours." Well, I’ve had Macs for 18 years now and I’m still waiting.

What about you? Share your opinions and experiences in the Comments section below.