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Can a Mac get a computer virus? We investigate

There are many benefits to having an Apple Mac as a computer, but is safety one of them? Are Apples actually “safer” computers, or is this just a misconception spread by Mac-fanatics?

Safety by obscurity

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that Macs can get viruses – any computer can get a virus. The reason why Windows computers are plagued by infections while Macs escape mostly unscathed isn’t because Apple have better technicians, but because of obscurity.

For the last ten years, Windows computers have been used by 90-95% of the population, while the Mac users count for between 3%-10% of all computer users during this time.

Imagine criminals looking to exploit computer users are fishermen. Would they rather visit a lake with fish stocks of 95%, or one of 3%? Exactly – you can reach far more people by writing a virus for Windows than for OSX, the Mac operating system.

Things are changing, however. First, imagine that the fish stocks in the lake had dropped to 90%, and the fish in the other one had increased to 10% – that’s more in tune with today’s computer use rates, and they continue to move in the Mac’s favour.

Now imagine that two thirds of the fish in the first lake had learnt to avoid the fisherman’s lures – by downloading antivirus software and taking computer precautions. That leaves just 30% of fish – computer users – vulnerable to easy exploits.

Compare that to the 10% in Apple’s pond, and the comparison is a lot closer now than it has ever been before.

Bad user habits die hard

The result is that criminals (we can stop calling them fisherman now) have two pools of victims that are, if not equal, then much closer in potential vulnerability. If there are one billion vulnerable PC users, there are 300 million Mac users.

What’s worse, however, is that most Mac users think that as Macs have been safer in the past, then they will continue to be secure in the future. This was proven to be a misconception in 2012, when the “Flashback” virus infected 700,000 Apples.

Bad manufacturer habits die hard

The other issue for Mac users is that Apple has had an easy ride with viruses, and so it isn’t as experienced at quickly plugging security holes as Microsoft.

For example, it wasn’t too long ago that there was a big exploit in a piece of system software called Java (used on both Mac and Windows PCs), and while the PC version was patched within days, it took Apple two months to release a fix.

That’s a huge amount of time in the computer world where a virus can spread around the world in a matter of days. It’s also bad considering it was a security hole in Java that allowed the Flashback virus to spread.

So Mac users: please take care of your computers and install anti-virus software.


2 Responses to Can a Mac get a computer virus? We investigate

  1. Steven Barber says:

    Acutally they can i am a IT superviser for a school district and i work on macs since i was 9 the truth is macs os is built off a linux kernal witch means they cant its the most secure os out there

    • Ashram says:

      OS X is not built on the Linux kernel. It’s based on OpenStep with the current version (10.9.2 Mavericks) being Unix certified whereas Linux is Unix-like.

      However, even the most secure operating system is only as secure as the user is.

      In other words, OS X can still be infected by a virus if the user is tricked into executing malicious code and giving that code administrator permission (signified by entering the administrator password when prompted) to make changes to the system.

      Another vector is to run malicious code within a program that is already trusted to run on the system. This is where attacks through software like Flash, Java, or Microsoft Office can come into play.

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