Do you really need anti-virus on your Apple Mac?

Filed Under: Apple, Malware

Apple Mac

It started with just a small pebble being dropped into a pond. Apple updated one of its support advisories on 21 November, informing its customers that they are recommended to run anti-virus software.

Most people would never have noticed this announcement. I didn't at first. I only heard about it when I saw the guys from Intego mention it on their Apple security blog on 25 November. A couple of days later, recovering from a bout of man-flu, I blogged about a new piece of Apple malware and mentioned in passing that Apple were now recommending their customers run anti-virus software.

Today, however, that small pebble dropped by Apple has turned into a tidalwave of commentary - and we're seeing lots of news stories about Apple urging Mac users to protect themselves with anti-virus.

So, do you really need anti-virus on your Apple Mac?

Lets look at the facts.

Fact one: Mac malware is being written and distributed
We have seen more activity on the Macintosh malware front this year. For instance, in August Troj/RKOSX-A was discovered - a Mac OS X tool to assist hackers create backdoor Trojans, which can give them access and control over your Mac.

More recently, and more seriously, we discovered the OSX/Jahlav-A Trojan horse which has been deliberately planted on websites waiting for Mac users to visit.

This is not a proof-of-concept threat. It is real, and regular Mac users can get themselves infected.

(Sidebar: Learn more about the history of Apple Mac malware)

Fact two: Mac malware uses the same tricks as Windows malware
Apple Mac malware has been planted on websites, posing as a program to allow you to watch a saucy video. Guess what? When you install it, the malware downloads additional malicious components from a third party server.

That's exactly the same way so many Windows attacks work. You visit a website thinking you're going to watch a naked video of Paris Hilton, Angelina Jolie or some other hollywood celebrity and it tells you you don't have the right codec, or the right version of Adobe Flash to watch the movie. And when you upgrade yourself - BAM! - you've been infected.

Fact three: Mac users are just as human as Windows users
Wearing a dark polo-neck sweater and drinking cappuccino does not make you any less susceptible to social engineering tricks than Windows users. Mac users are just as keen to view a pornographic video as Windows users are.

Some Mac users in the past have argued that on Mac OS X you need to enter your system administrator username and password to install software, and that this is a defence.

Guess what? If you want to install a codec to watch a porn video, you will enter your username and password.

Fact four: There aren't as many Mac malware threats as Windows threats
Not by a long shot. The Mac malware threat is still a raindrop in a thunderstorm compared to the problem of Windows viruses, Trojans and worms. But it does exist, and we are seeing some hacking gangs writing malware for both platforms, and planting their attacks on webpages in such a way as to serve up a Mac threat when Apple users visit, and a Windows attack when PC users surf by.

Fact five: Mac users have been more complacent about security
There has been a higher level of security complacency in the Apple user community than amongst Windows users. This is a consequence of Apple users having less threats to worry about (see fact four above), and been exposed to less danger, simply because most hackers have targeted their attacks at Windows.

With many Apple users incorrectly believing that they are somehow immune from the problem of internet security threats, there is the risk that Mac users are making themselves a soft target for future hacker attacks.

Fact six: Windows threats can infect Macs too
The use of Intel-based chips in Apple Mac hardware has made use of Windows on Macs more common, so Macs are more likely than before to be harbouring and spreading Windows malware.

Fact seven: Apple market share is growing
2008 saw record sales of Apple Mac computers, with some users undoubtedly switching from the PC camp to Apple because of a disgruntlement with Windows Vista. As the market share for Apple Macs increases, it is likely to become more tempting for hackers to target the platform.

So, back to my original question, do you really need anti-virus on your Apple Mac?

The answer is yes.

Even though the problem isn't as big as the Windows problem, your data, your identity, your Mac computer is too valuable to put at risk by not protecting it with anti-virus software.

DownloadFree Anti-Virus for Mac
Download Sophos Anti-Virus for Mac Home Edition

PS. Will we continue to see TV adverts like this from Apple?

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About the author

Graham Cluley runs his own award-winning computer security blog, and is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and gives computer security presentations. Send Graham an email, subscribe to his updates on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and App.net, and circle him on Google Plus for regular updates.