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The Mac: Virus-Free, or Not?

March 30th, 2005

Symantec, a company that produces anti-virus software for the Mac, recently caused a stir in the community by releasing a report which suggests that a wave of viruses is headed for the Mac:

Out of the public eye for some time, it is now clear that the Mac OS is increasingly becoming a target for the malicious activity that is more commonly associated with Microsoft and various Unix-based operating systems. … Apple Computer has become a target for new attacks… The appearance of a rootkit109 called Opener in October 2004 serves to illustrate the growth in vulnerability research on the OS X platform…

Many have criticized this announcement, noting that since Symantec sells anti-virus software and that a virus scare would increase their business, the warning could easily be seen as self-serving.

Indeed, Symantec’s evidence is weak: the very first attack on OS X recently appeared, six months ago, in the form of the “rootkit” called “Opener.” However, “Opener” is not a virus or a worm, and actually requires someone to allow root access via a password on the system before it can even be a threat–and even then, the threat is localized to a single user. In addition, the rootkit cannot propagate itself. It hardly even qualifies as a threat at all, and so far as I can find, only one user has reported suffering from it; subsequent worry has been about the rootkit’s potential, and in the six months following the first report, I have heard of no subsequent attacks.

So essentially, there’s no evidence that a wave of Mac viruses is headed for your computer. Not that it’s impossible, mind you–Mac OS X is very strong, but not completely impenetrable. It is assumed that at some point, a virus will break through. But it is also acknowledged that cracking OS X with any kind of substantial virus or worm is extraordinarily difficult. One Mac advocate believes this to the point that he actually offered $25,000 (reportedly doubled to $50,000) to anyone who could infect a pair of Mac G5s running without a firewall or anti-virus software. He closed down the contest after strong disapproval from the Mac community, as well as the legal issues–paying for someone to create viruses could be construed as a federal crime.

Certainly, the Mac OS is very strong. It was built from the ground up to be secure, whereas Windows is a virtual sieve of security holes. Mac browsers and email software do not have the virtually unlimited access to system resources that Microsoft’s browser and email apps have. Mac OS X requires a password to be typed in whenever the system is altered; not so in Windows. And systems that are most vulnerable are turned off by default in OS X, requiring a user who knows a little about what they’re doing to start them up–and a great majority of users will never need those services anyway. This article claims that the greatest threat to a Mac would be a Trojan-horse app could break Mac OS X–and such an app would be instantly outed, meaning the outbreak would be minimal at best.

Some say that the only reason that Mac OS X has remained virus-free is because of its small market share; a virus author wants to affect the largest number of people, so the Mac just isn’t on the radar. And while this makes some sense, it does not make complete sense. There are more than enough Mac and UNIX users out there so that someone should have had a strong interest by now. But even more convincing is the fact the reported invulnerability of OS X would be like an “attractive nuisance,” a challenge for hackers to test their skills; there would certainly be a great deal of props given in hacker circles to the first person to take down the OS. But in four years, no one has done this. Which begs the question, why not? Certainly at least one hacker should have taken the time to do this by now.

Again, this is not to say it can’t be done–but there is a huge difference between potential and reality. Windows users must face 60,000-plus menaces to their OS that are out there (I receive a steady stream of Windows viruses in junk emails), while Mac users still do not have any palpable threats to their security. And when a real Mac virus does appear, there will be so much coverage that it will be almost impossible to miss it. Still, it is a good idea to protect your system as much as possible. But the worry is far, far less.

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  1. mashu
    March 30th, 2005 at 23:03 | #1


    I have always been interested in Macs but price has pushed me to buy the cheaper pcs. Now I am so comfortable with pc that i am reluctant to buy a mac. I would like to switch ( and now one can buy used macs for VERY cheap)

    btw—-I have a very old friend–in his 80s. He asked my advice for buying a computer. I suggested a mac for safety and user friendlyness. But in the past year he has often asked me for help to do things with his computer. Easy stuff like word processer stuff, reformating documents, setting up email and browser, real basic stuff. And you know what? I had the hardest time doing it. It was like going back to square one. I had no f***king idea what the hell to do. It was, literally the blind leading the blind.

    Now I respect mac and AM WANTING TO BUY one ( see above) but my experience keeps my wallet in the pocket.

    I know your a big fan… so looking forward to your opinions.


  2. Brad
    April 1st, 2005 at 12:44 | #2

    I’m a complete non-Windows user for two main reasons, primarily because I’m a Unix man, and have been able to use Unix in one form or another for my personal computing all of my adult life (from SCO Xenix to SCO Unix to Linux). And secondly because I don’t want to pay for Windows, and also believe it to be inferior in quality etc to Unix. The plethora of viruses out there ready to invade a Windows PC has sort of vindicated my preference too.

    I’ve always been aware of those weird MAC people, but never understood them much; Apple hardware always seemed way overpriced, and I could plonk Unix on a cheap bit of generic “IBM PC Compatible” hardware for a lot less money than a Mac aficionado.

    And then when OSX came out – some variant of BSD Unix I believe? – I felt vindicated in that area also.

    Is the Mac really worth it these days, if you don’t want to buy something that can come in six different colours (I dimly recall some marketing of something Apple’ish that came in varioius colours?). If it’s all Unix under the hood, what are the Mac’s real strengths?

    As someone who is Mac ignorant, can you tell me what makes a Mac superior to a Unix (Linux or BSD) PC these days? NOT versus Windows, but compared with Unix? Just curious.


  3. Nickuss
    September 8th, 2006 at 14:15 | #3


    I have traditionally been a Windows user, but I am gradually switching. Just recently with a purchase of a new (but discontinued) iBook. I love it, and having used Macs at my second workplace for the last year or so, Windows XP just seems so OLD…even Vista (which I have used) feels old compared to Tiger.

    I also love the fact that straight out of the box, you can do so much. And not having to worry about viruses is a bonus. I have had discussions with people about the virus-free Mac OS, with deffensive responses. Usually by Anti-Macs or just PC-Lovers. I reckon that Macs stay virus free because even if an open port was found that people with malicious intentions can use, there are so few, that Apple would be able to plug them almost instantaneously. Not like windows, which has so many that get discovered all the time.

    I used to be an anti-mac person, but that was only because my only experiences with macs were at school where they were few, poorly looked after and old. Since having consistent, good experiences, I have switched. I am contantly trying to convince people that ask my oppinions on what computer they should buy to consider a mac, but they have also had bad experiences. Its been hard, but I have switched a few!


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