Should I install Security Software on my Mac?

Question

Should I install a security suite on my Mac?

- Susan

Answer

This question was answered on December 17, 2010. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.

This is one of the most heated debates on the Interwebs: should folks that have a Mac install any type of security software?

In the past, the discussion was specifically about whether one should install anti-virus software on their Mac, but todays attack vector is much more sophisticated than simple virus code, so the real discussion should be about general security.

The term virus is used by most non-technical folks when they mean any kind of malicious software (malware), but today we are being attacked by so many different malicious programs that actual virus code is pretty low on the threat list.

Lets start by discussing some of the common claims youll hear on the Internet:

Macs dont get viruses

One of the first viruses every written (1982), was written for the Apple II and subsequent versions of Apples Mac OS (especially 7) have had well chronicled bouts with lots of viruses With the release of OS X, Apple made a dramatic shift in security that made most of the past exploits useless.

In technical terms, the statement is false because viruses written specifically to attack OS X as well as various proof of concept viruses have been written over the years If you expand the term virus to mean malware, then many Trojans and browser exploits exist: (heres the top 20 fro Sophos - http://bit.ly/hTz1Y3).

Macs are safer than Windows computers

This statement is unequivocally indisputable! The relative dangers for Internet connected computers running Windows is exponentially higher than for those running Mac OS X

The primary data that most folks point to for the reason is the market share:

Worldwide - Windows 90.81% v Mac 5.03% (etmarketshare.com)

US  Windows 83.37% v Mac 11.46% (etmarketshare.com)

The thought being that criminals and hackers will go where the masses (& money) are, but there are other forces in play that contribute.

Apples decisions to leave old exploitable OS code out of OS X essentially required malicious software authors that were targeting Macs to start from scratch This combined with the inherent security built into OS X made it much harder to write code that could exploit and propagate malicious code amongst this smaller number of computers.

In addition, much of todays sophisticated malware is written in foreign countries (Eastern Block and Asian primarily) where pirated software is rampant Since most malware authors are running cheap pirated Windows-based computers, its another statistical contributor.

Its no longer about the OS!

But the folks writing malware want you to keep focusing on the Windows vs Mac discussion because they have already moved on to attacking everyone, no matter what operating system they use.

Todays exploits rely on exploiting the weakest part of any computer system: the user!

Social engineering tactics combined with exploits of unpatched browsers are leading the charge for todays sophisticated Internet-based attacks and making the OS that youre running irrelevant.

Drive-by downloads (slipping malicious code into your computer when you visit a malicious website) can be performed on virtually any browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera, etc.) regardless of operating system if they are left unpatched.

So to get to your question: should you install security software on your Mac.

Im not a big fan of installing an anti-virus program that constantly runs on Macs as it will have an impact on the performance (just like on Windows systems), but having a tool (like the free ClamXav - http://clamxav.com) that you can manually run on occasion is a pretty good idea.

The current risk/reward to installing an active AV program on Macs is not worth it (IMHO) at the moment, but that's likely to change over time (stay tuned).

The real threats are your browser, Internet utilities and your behaviors on the Internet If you or any member of your family engage in risky behavior (file sharing, cracked software, game cheats, adult sites, etc.) dont count on a security suite to save you.

Make sure to keep your browser, Adobe Flash/Reader, Quicktime and Mac OS updated with the latest security patches and consider using some of the free tools we have listed for protecting yourself against drive-by downloads at http://bit.ly/fKfM0C .

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Author

Posted by Ken of Data Doctors on December 17, 2010