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  • The Mac Malware Report for 2005

    December 31st, 2005

    Oh, that’s right, unless you believe what a very few might tell you, there is nothing to report about Mac malware. Despite some security leaks that Apple patched over the year, there were no official confirmations that any of those leaks were actually exploited. So we are left with a potential but not necessarily a reality.

    And that’s how our story begins.

    If you are an avid reader of Consumer Reports magazine, which has a penchant for both praising Macs and getting the facts absolutely wrong, you might believe there were malware threats. After all, the magazine ran a survey that 20% of Mac users had encountered viruses in recent years. But isn’t it also true that the only Mac OS X viruses were a handful of proofs of concept created in labs? While it shows the potential, that doesn’t make it a reality, although the companies who make Mac virus protection applications didn’t hesitate to make sure you are protected anyway. You never know if those things will somehow escape into the wild, thus creating genuine threats. Of course that doesn’t explain that crazy survey, and you have to wonder if the magazine’s other reader surveys are equally flawed.

    Besides, isn’t it also true that you want to help protect your fellow consumer users out there who use the Windows platform? Yes, you see the Mac virus protection packages will generally scan for Windows-based virus, and eradicate them, so you don’t accidentally forward a virus-infected message to someone by mistake. This is actually a serious issue, but at the same time virus protection software can be somewhat invasive to your system. In fact, there is a known problem with both the Mac and Windows versions of Symantec’s Norton Anti-Virus that may create a security hole. It’s a shortcoming that will, of course, be fixed.

    So much for Mac viruses, at least for now. Although Mac OS X is more secure than Windows, however, it’s not immune. Some feel that we don’t get much attention simply because the Mac market share is so small, and Internet criminals prefer bigger, more vulnerable targets. As users of the Classic Mac OS recall, there were some pretty irritating viruses on our favorite computing platform over the years, so never say never.

    But what about spyware, those irritating applications that cause system slow-downs, unexpected pop-up screens and create the potential for numerous security lapses on Windows? Can that happen to Mac users as well? Well, of course it can, and one person who runs a small software and computer security company says it has happened, and that he has software to protect you. Of course, when I interviewed Nicholas Raba of SecureMac.com for this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I had to decide whether to seem confrontational or just skeptical. I was sorely tempted to take an “O’Reilly Factor” approach, but I chose to remain calm, and I gave Mr. Raba a chance to tell his story, but I just don’t buy it.

    Raba’s product, MacScan 2.0, will supposedly “find, isolate, and remove spyware, keystroke loggers, and trojan horses as well as detect whether remote administration applications have been installed on a computer.”

    Now Raba claims that it isn’t a virus protection program, yet a trojan horse is generally placed into the virus category. As to spyware and all the rest, I asked a couple of pointed questions as to whether such things really exist. He says they are encountering roughly three each and every day that have to be detected. Unfortunately, getting specifics isn’t easy. The online list that his company maintains to catalog spyware hasn’t been populated with anything but a statement that “An updated Spyware list will be released after beta testing.”

    Now maybe it’s true that he hasn’t had time to address this oversight since the application was only released a couple of weeks ago. But wouldn’t just one be, shall we say, reassuring to potential customers of his product? To be blunt, the online chatter about MacScan is highly skeptical, and I won’t quote some of the less complimentary remarks, but you get the picture.

    So is Raba just hoping that people will be paranoid enough to pay $24.95 to combat a potential threat until the real one arrives? Or is he a smart businessman entering a market that has immense growth potential when malware really infects Mac OS X? Of course, until some independent party has a chance to test the program against real spyware (if they can find any) and other potential threats, we won’t know.

    Now with the Mac platform expanding, it is indeed important to practice safe computing. What’s more if you do exchange messages and files with Windows users, installing a Mac virus protection application and keeping it up to date may actually be a good idea. At the same time, so long as you don’t attempt to open or forward files from strangers or from people you know that you didn’t expect to receive, you can probably remain safe without having to install any new software.

    At least for now.

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