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Do Mac Owners Need Antivirus Software?

Posted on May 10, 2011
Macs have always been less vulnerable to viruses and malware than their Windows cohorts. But with the Internet and all its new dangers, do Mac owners now need antivirus software?

Tags: Do Mac Owners Need Antivirus Software?
(Note: In this article, the terms virus and malware are used interchangeably, but you should know that the term malware encompasses all types of malicious programs, while a virus is just one type of malicious program.)

Macs are Still Less Vulnerable to Operating System Exploits

The Apple Macintosh has always been less vulnerable to operating system exploits like viruses, worms, and Trojan horses, in spite of the first computer virus "in the wild" having been written for Apple II computers and discovered in 1981. However, the Mac operating system (OS) was somewhat more secure and an order of magnitude less popular than DOS and then Windows, and the number of widespread Mac OS malware incidents throughout the Mac's existence can be counted on one hand.

When the Mac OS was rewritten from the ground up and released in 2001, it was built upon a Unix framework. Unix-based operating systems have historically been extremely secure, and the new Mac OS X inherited these security features. Out of the box, OS X comes with a decently-configured firewall as well as basic, non-intrusive security measures such as requiring an admin password before allowing any root-level access, that do an excellent job of keeping viruses and malware from finding a foothold in the Mac OS.

It's virtually impossible for a computer running Mac OS X to get infected with viruses or malware. However…

But the Malware Trend Today is After Data, Not Operating Systems

Old-school viruses tended to be either destructive or written to merely gloat about the prowess of its coder. Macs are not generally vulnerable to these.

Today, however, the OS isn't the only avenue for exploits, and they don't want to destroy your data — they want to steal it. Phishing scams use social engineering to attempt to lure you into divulging personal information. Web browsers constantly have security exploits discovered and patched, and the Mac isn't invulnerable to this.

Not long ago, an exploit was found in Apple's Safari browser in which an unscrupulous website could glean the information stored in a surfer's "AutoFill" profile in their browser, such as full name, address, phone number, and other personal information. The security breach was quickly sealed with an upgraded version of Safari, but that wasn't a lone case. These holes are found all the time. Email attachments still contain dangers to many operating systems, including Mac, if they're opened or run.

Many exploits and dangers can be stopped with antivirus software. While the average Mac user may not need antivirus software, there are some situations where installing an antivirus program might be a good idea:

·    you surf questionable websites (e.g., porn)
·    you engage in file sharing/P2P
·    your ISP doesn't scan email messages for you
·    you do a lot of downloading
·    and, of course, antivirus is imperative if you also run Windows on your Mac

What was that? Do Mac owners need antivirus software if they're running Windows on an Intel Mac? Absolutely. Windows is still Windows, no matter what brand computer you are using. If you have Windows installed and you boot into it, you must install and run antivirus software. There are antivirus software packages on the market, such as Norton's Dual Protection products, designed to protect both Windows and Mac OS when running on the same machine.

The Bottom Line

Mac OS X is a very secure operating system for which few viruses exist in the wild. The average user who takes basic precautions to avoid being scammed out of their personal information probably isn't going to have a problem, but the additional protection offered by security software is never a bad idea. In addition, Mac users who run Windows on their Mac and/or engage in risky online behavior should really consider running reliable antivirus software as a protective measure.

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