INFO: Simple Guidelines for Understanding the Real-world Threats to Macs

Description: This document provides some simple guidelines for understanding the real-world threats to Macintosh systems from invasive software, and a few sensible steps to keep your Macintosh productive and secure.

Macs don't get viruses... or do they?

As with any personal computer, a Macintosh system's hardware performs functions based on commands issues by software. The software is contained in the Mac's operating system and its applications.

There are a number of reasons why invasive programs - viruses, worms, Trojan horses and other forms of malicious software ("malware" for short) do not usually find their way onto a Macintosh:

  • The UNIX-based operating system has more built-in security.
  • Programs installed in a Mac have a more controlled relationship with the operating system
  • There are fewer Macs in use worldwide, and hence a Mac is a less attractive target to malicious programmers.

Nonetheless, invasive programs are written in the same way as legitimate programs, and thus can invade whatever system they are written to operate in: including a Macintosh.

One more important thing to remember is the threat posed by sharing data with other computers. An invasive program may not be able to attack your computer, but you may still inadvertently pass the threat to a friend or colleague, whose system is vulnerable.

Are there really a lot of Mac viruses out there?

In a five-year survey (2005-2009) of software-based threats conducted by the Department of Homeland Security's Computer Emergency Readiness Team, some 12% of those threats had a direct potential to attack a Macintosh system.

So, where do I start?

One simple step to minimize the threat of a "Mac Invader" is to ensure that the computer knows who is giving the orders, by setting up strong user-account and Mac "keychain" passwords. Security experts typically recommend the following rules for creating a password:

  • 8 to 16 characters in length
  • Not a proper name or a "dictionary word"
  • A mixture of uppercase letter, lowercase letters and digits.
  • Optionally, includes special characters (understroke, dollar sign, brackets etc.)

Next, as with any computer system, is to avoid inviting threats into your Mac. Be careful when clicking on Web-site links, especially within e-mail messages. After all, an invasive program can transmit copies of itself to e-mail addresses in a contact list, even without the knowledge of the user.

Contrary to popular belief, an antivirus utility program is a worthwhile addition to a Macintosh system. In fact, one popular brand of antivirus program was first released as "[Brand Name] Antivirus for Macintosh". For this writer's MacBook system, ESET Cybersecurity for Mac has proven effective, as well as compact and efficient, and has taken very little network time to obtain its daily "booster shots".

Finally, make and maintain your Mac system's backups. Not only will a good backup strategy let you recover from a possible virus attack, but also restore system content in case of a hardware failure, a collision between installed programs or an accidental erasure of data.