The Apple Security Report: Time to Take Precautions

February 25th, 2006

When you think of security, the threat of malware comes to mind. Whether you call it a virus, a Trojan Horse or a worm, you don’t want to have to confront the nasty thing. You may prefer to think of such problems as exclusive to the Windows platform, but the first computer virus actually appeared years ago on the Unix operating system.

Over the years, there have been relatively few Mac viruses. Most were simply annoying, although some were destructive enough to cause you agony if you encountered them. But when Mac OS X arrived, and the closest thing to a virus threat was a proof of concept or two, or perhaps the periodic security updates from Apple, it was easy to come to the conclusion that it can’t happen here. That Mac OS X was also supposed to be more secure than Windows only added to your feeling of security. But it’s a false sense of security.

Now it’s perfectly true that the Mac virus that has gotten so much attention in recent days isn’t near as lethal as most. True, it can replace some of your applications if you let it loose, but those applications can be reinstalled. The highly-touted iChat threat only impacts folks on a local, Bonjour network, not while you’re connected via AOL’s AIM network on the Internet, but that wouldn’t stop someone from building another virus that’s less picky.

But it’s not hard to protect yourself from computer viruses. One of the strongest remedies is simply not to open files you didn’t expect to receive, even if you know who sent it. Remember, that malware can affect someone’s computer and then spread itself by grabbing that person’s address book or buddy list.

Another step to protect yourself is to install a virus protection application. Yes, you might consider such software as potentially invasive because it’s monitoring your system, and it may slow down application launches because of background scanning. It’s also true that these applications are known to cause system-related anomalies from time to time, but regular updates usually fix that. You just have to remember to configure the automatic update process, known as NetUpdate with Intego’s VirusBarrier and LiveUpdate with Symantec’s Norton Anti-Virus. They are usually configured for weekly updates, but I’d recommend you change the settings to daily.

These two elements comprise only part of the steps you need to take to protect your stuff. As I said, Mac OS X security updates appear occasionally. They close loopholes in the system. It doesn’t mean those loopholes have been exploited. In fact they haven’t been, at least not yet, even that recently discovered security hole that reportedly afflicts Apple’s Safari browser. But those updates are still essential, because it only takes one successful attempt to breach a security leak for havoc to ensue.

There is a final step you should take to protect yourself, and it’s one that should become a regular part of your computing regimen. Even if there was never a security threat, never a virus in the wild, never a need for any sort of security update or virus protection software, this step is essential. All you have to do is mistakenly delete a file, or experience a hard drive failure to find yourself feeling totally helpless. I’m taking about backups. True, you may be able to reinstall your system and applications if you have the original media (assuming you didn’t get them online), but what about those business reports you did in Microsoft Word, the presentations you created for that sales meeting in Keynote, or the financial records from Intuit’s Quicken?

Think about what it would involve to have to recreate all that critical data? Think about how long it would take to download and reinstall any software you lost, assuming it didn’t come in a retail box? Consider the cost, for example, of recovering a crashed hard drive. Yes, there are drive repair utilities, data recovery utilities, but trying to get your files back after the fact isn’t guaranteed. Also remember that virus protection software isn’t perfect, and an infected file may not be recoverable. In addition if a new virus strain appears, it may take a few days for definitions to be updated, leaving time for lots of damage to be done.

Backups can be as simple or as complicated as you wish. It may just involve making copies of your most important files on an external drive, or perhaps a CD or DVD. No, putting it on another partition on your hard drive isn’t a solution, because when the drive fails, as they do on occasion, it takes down everything. You don’t need special software for this simple sort of backup, just some way to remind yourself to do it regularly. Daily is not too often, especially if you are making new documents or revisions each day. When I record an interview for The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I actually make three copies on external drives as soon as the interview has ended. I do not want to even think of having to do that interview all over again, and most guests expect to do it just once, and that’s it!

If your needs are more complicated, consider backup software. The application I use these days is SuperDuper!, a shareware program that clones your hard drive. But it is a lot more sophisticated than that, because its Smart Update feature can be used after the initial backup to only copy the files that have actually changed. It also makes your backup drive bootable, which means you can start from that drive if your main drive fails. There are also scheduled backups and other features that make it more than worth its $27.95 price for a user license.

Although backups aren’t hard to do, I understand that you are busy and it’s awfully easy to forget about it. In addition to setting up a schedule with your software, you could also set a reminder in iCal. If you really want to learn the ins and outs of setting up the best backup routine for your needs, you’ll want to check out Joe Kissell’s excellent e-book, Take Control of Mac OS X Backups. Joe is a regular guest on the radio show, and he guides you through just about every possible backup possibility, step-by-step, so you know which one will work best for you. It may be the best $10 you ever spent.

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