• No, It’s Not a Virus

    December 10th, 2005

    After first reading the results of the silly survey in Consumer Reports that showed that 20% of Mac users had encountered viruses, I began to wonder just what they were talking about. Surely the people who conducted that survey knew better, right? I am not willing to believe, at least for now, that it was faked. Perhaps the questions didn’t elicit accurate information.

    Regardless, I had a call from a client last night who claimed that he had encountered a virus on his aging Power Mac 8500, which was running a version of Mac OS 9. I asked a couple of key questions, and found out that he had suffered from an occasional crash, and merely assumed that any untoward behavior was the result of a virus. I explained that personal computers can crash, freeze and otherwise fail without any outside influences. He just didn’t realize what a virus really was.

    I began to consider the matter further and recalled that, over the years, another client, a professional photographer, would write me on occasion asking if she had a virus whenever her Mac system acted up. She is an avid online news surfer and had read all those reports about the virus infections rampant on the Windows platform. So when her Mac began to crash unexpectedly, or performance took a huge hit, she thought she knew where to place the blame. Aha! An epiphany.

    These two episodes pretty much confirmed what I had believed, that the Mac users who answered in the affirmative on that Consumer Reports survey were simply mistaken. Unfortunately, the editors didn’t concern themselves about such subtle distinctions. They simply assumed the information must be correct and went on with their business. Now I’ve done a little investigative reporting to see just why CR doesn’t seem to understand Macs, and I’ve come away with the strong impression that they are undoubtedly sincere, but misguided. My understanding that Macs are rampant in their editorial and art departments has been pretty much confirmed by a few sources I’ve checked on the subject.

    In any case, it’s time to clarify this matter once and for all. Although there have been a handful of proofs of concept, there have been no proven Mac OS X virus infections, no spyware. But this does not mean it can’t or won’t happen. For now, virus writers have concentrated on the Windows platform, and there have been published reports that an organized crime culture has arisen around such aberrant behavior. In any case, the very popularity of Windows has attracted computer criminals, and one reason given for the lack of virus outbreaks on the Mac is its relative “obscurity” in the scheme of things.

    Now to be perfectly realistic, the Mac is not immune. Back in the Classic Mac OS days, there were a few dozen viruses around. Some were downright annoying, but rarely as destructive as they’ve been under Windows, where a virus can allow someone to actually take over a personal computer and use it as part of a network of PC robots to send spam.

    To be sure, as the Mac continues to gain market share, I have little doubt virus writers will find the platform more attractive for their destructive payloads. Yes, the Unix underpinnings for Mac OS X are more secure, but not invulnerable. In fact the very first computer viruses appeared on Unix, so I have little doubt it can happen again. Someone out there is going to want the honor of being number one with a bullet, and boast that he or she wrote the first successful Mac OS X virus. It may not happen today or tomorrow, but it seems inevitable.

    Does this mean you should arm yourself with virus software? Well, consider this: Even if there are no existing Mac viruses to fret over, consider the consequences of forwarding a virus infected message to a Windows user, purely by accident of course. I suppose you could take the hard nosed approach that it serves them right to use the wrong computing platform. But as a practical matter, not everyone who uses Windows does it by choice. Quite often, they are simply working at a business that has been using Windows for reasons over which they have no control. People who depend on that business for their livelihoods or their products or services shouldn’t be forced to suffer any more than they do now.

    The Mac virus programs from Intego, Symantec and others, therefore, scan for Windows-based viruses. It makes perfect sense, and even if you’re not directly affected, you surely wouldn’t want to be the cause of someone else’s grief. So if you do exchange messages with lots of people you don’t know, it would hurt to install software of this sort. Regardless, it doesn’t hurt to be cautious. Don’t forward messages to people unless you trust the content and don’t open files from strangers or that appear to come unexpectedly from people you know. Trust, but verify, to use the old catch phrase.

    And the next time your Mac acts flaky, don’t assume it’s a virus. That possibility, at least for now, is way down at the bottom of the list of likely causes.

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