Do Macs Need to Run Extra Antivirus Software?

by David Czepanski May 08, 2006

It was interesting to see that the “first” of the new ads released by Apple was touting how resilient the Mac is to viruses.

That’s not a bad approach to selling more Macs if you ask me. It’s no secret that Windows has been ravished by malware, spyware security holes and viruses. It’s a convincing argument to state that there were “114,000 known viruses for PCs” by the end of 2005 and NONE for the mac especially if you’re a PC user sick of fighting what must feel like a losing battle.

It’s convincing, yes, but is it true?

There’s been a great deal of media interest over the recent security issues exposed in OS X but rather than examine these here, have a read over at Daring Fireball where John Gruber has a good look at the FUD surrounding these reports and reporters.

While 114,000 actual viruses is not particularly newsworthy for Windows, a couple of potential exploits on OS X makes headline news. Seems that people do care about 5% market share after all.

You’ll read that a lot whenever you get into this debate. Macs haven’t been a target up until now because they fly under the radar; there’s more fame for a virus “author” if he writes for a larger market.

That sounds OK at first, but let’s do some very (very) rough math. Let’s say that there are 114,000 viruses for Windows which run on 95% of the computers in the world. All things being equal, if the Mac has 5% market share, there should be 1200 viruses for the Mac.

But there are not.

I know, I know, there are many more factors than that (like Windows + Mac does NOT = 100% of the computers in the world) but clearly the amount of viruses a platform has is not just a matter of market share and proportion.

Some companies are putting out some giddying “facts” about how the Mac is a target for viruses and under serious attack at the moment—a trend that they claim will most likely increase. Luckly, these same companies can sell you a solution to this problem.

Thank goodness, and where’s my credit card?

Back to the Virus ad and Apple has made a true statement. None of the Viruses written for the PC will work on a Mac running OS X. HOWEVER that’s different than saying that there are none for the Mac.

In the 14 reasons why you’ll love a Mac (14? weird number) the lack of viruses comes in at number 4. The web page claims that

In March 2006 alone, there were 850 new threats detected against Windows. Zero for Mac.

which is a little sly; it was a good month for the Mac. Threats certainly have been detected in the past; it’s just that there were none in March. The point is, there weren’t 850!

Originally, antivirus software took a different approach to what we have today. Essentially, the antivirus program took note of all the programs on your machine. If something new wanted to run, it would bring it to your attention and you could either OK it or deny it.

There are two main problems with this model

1 . Things have become a great deal more complex since this approach was first used, and today such a program would (initially) be constantly asking permission to run harmless programs. Users would become annoyed by such questions and either “turn down” the level of user intervention or just say “Accept” to every warning, eventually allowing something harmful through.

2. There would be little or no need to upgrade such a program. It would be almost perfect once fine tuned as it would pick up activity for both existing viruses and those not yet written. It would therefore be a commercial flop—no continuing revenue. Not sure if you’ve noticed but most companies are interested in making money!

I’m not a programmer and so don’t know how these things really work, but I would think that it is possible to write an OS in such a way that certain parts are locked off to potentially harmful programs. I’m sure that it wouldn’t be easy but the point is that such an OS would be very secure.

Of course you always need to have somewhere to write files to and this is where most viruses do their damage. Who really cares if your OS is trashed? Sure it’s inconvenient but you have the restore disks right?

On the other hand, if your thesis, which you have poured your very soul into, is lost to a virus… well that’s another story. Likewise, your email, personal contacts, documents, photos, music, movies; these are the things that make our computers personal computers and these are the very things that are taken away by malicious software.

And how many of us have a good enough back up of those things? If a virus was written for the Mac that trashed your home directory *right now*, would you be okay? Most likely you would spend some quality time in the corner of the room curled up in the fetal position, whimpering gently.

Let’s be clear here—while I am not a programmer, I could certainly write something that could be downloaded from the internet, would ask for admin permissions to install and wipe your hard drive. If I can do it, thousands if not millions could. Antivirus software is NOT going to help you there.

So, are we at the point where we need to run antivirus software on our Macs? I still say no but others disagree. In fact, most people consider such an attitude downright reckless.

People can say what they want but they do what they believe; in other words, actions speak louder than words.

What advice do you give other Mac users and, more importantly, what measures do you take to protect your Mac? What do you do?

Let’s leave the last comment to those folks at Apple. It’s in fine print at the bottom of the page that says how secure the Mac is…

A Mac running with factory settings will protect you from viruses much better than a PC, but it’s never a bad idea to run extra virus and security software.


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