It has been often thought in IT circles that Mac computers and networks are less susceptible to virus attacks than Windows systems. This is an argument that has raged for decades.
Macs can get malware. The MacOS is more secure than Windows, but it is susceptible to viruses and malware in general, often through add-ons and Internet infections. The number of known Mac viruses is much smaller for Mac systems than Windows systems.
Known Mac infections have included:
- The Flashback exploit of April 2012 infected over 600,000 Mac computers.
- The OSX/KitM.A virus was designed to take screenshots of a user’s desktop and upload to an Internet website. In May 2013 it Infected a small number of Mac systems.
- The OSX.PROTON personal data theft exploits of 2017 infected several thousand Mac computers.
- The OSX/MaMi snooping exploit of January 2018 hit several thousand or more Mac computers.
As windows malware protection improves, hackers are turning their attention to Mac systems.
On the face of it, it seems therefore that Mac users are at least equally susceptible to viruses, but a look in more detail will be useful.
The MacOS is derived from the “Darwin” fork of the BSD Kernel, starting in 2001. This provides UNIX-based security features, supplemented by Apple installing other security features like Gatekeeper. This application prevents the installation of applications that aren’t digitally approved by Apple unless the user specifically authorises them. The MacOS seems, in general, to be more secure than Windows.
Most virus targets are government and business systems, with the intention of stealing money or information. These systems are usually Windows-based. As a result, most hackers are well-versed in Windows systems, rather than Mac, However, since around 2015, the number of recorded virus attacks on the Mac system has increased substantially. This is supported by a Malwarebytes report in March 2018 which suggested that Mac malware grew by 270 percent in 2017.
The range and number of Mac malware attacks, not just viruses, has been increasing as noted above, particularly Internet-based attacks that don’t really care about the underlying operating system.
Types of Viruses and Malware
It is generally accepted that while the MacOS is more secure than Windows, most users will install additional software in the form of add-ins. These items may be inherently unsafe, and if they require internet connectivity could introduce security vulnerabilities.
Currently, the most common way to attack a Mac is through browsers and browser plugins like Adobe, Flash and Java.
Macs are less susceptible to malware but are still open to phishing, trojan horses and online fraud. Strictly speaking, these aren’t malware and rely on the user invoking a dodgy internet link.
Most security gurus will tell you that a 100% safe system doesn’t exist. Windows. Mac and Linux systems are all capable of hosting malware.
How Macs protect you
Apple has incorporated many malware protections in the MacOS. The prime point of departure is stopping you, as far as is possible from downloading and installing malware. MacOS will check the application you intend to run against a list of known malware applications and developers and if it is malware or from a non-approved developer, won’t let you run it.
You can get around it, but it isn’t recommended.
MacOS contains Xprotect, a malware scanning tool that runs quietly and automatically in the background. You don’t need to configure it, and it automatically updates itself from time to time.
This is the application that checks that the app you want to run is clean, and if it detects or suspects that the file is corrupted, tells you so and the malware with which it is infected.
There are also third-party anti-virus software applications available for the Mac.
What to Do
The first step is to educate yourself about security:
- Don’t install apps that are not digitally certified by Apple, unless you are 100% sure and then some that they are from an utterly trustworthy source.
- Don’t follow embedded links in emails, unless again you are 100% sure and then some that they are from an utterly trustworthy source. Emails apparently from friends or colleagues inviting you to look at some pictures of cute kittens are not to be trusted.
- Don’t hand out your application login credentials. Treat them like your ATM card and PIN.
- If you use a third party anti-virus application, make sure it is regularly updated, both in the application itself and the signature files used to detect viruses.
- Be very careful with removable media like DVDs and flash drives. Virus checks them before copying any files from them or running apps from them.
The answer to the question is that Mac users are not less susceptible to viruses. They need to exercise a similar level of caution.