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  • The Danger of Calling the Mac Virus-Free

    May 4th, 2006

    You can live in a vacuum and maintain that recent claims that the Mac is highly susceptible to malware are false. You could take a more cautious approach and buy the full package of protection software. Today that would include anti-virus, firewall and anti-spam capabilities and there’s even an anti-spyware application out there, although I’m not aware of any spyware for the Mac, at least not yet.

    However, Apple’s new “Get a Mac” TV ads may just create the wrong kind of attention. On the surface, it’s just a mildly funny vignette. The nerdy PC guy, as portrayed by The Daily Show’s John Hodgman, sneezes. The Mac guy, the cool dude portrayed by actor Justin Long, displays the appropriate level of sympathy by handing the hapless PC person a handkerchief. We discover there are over 114,000 viruses for the PC, “but not Macs.”

    It’s not that the information is necessarily wrong, but it leaves the viewer with the impression that the Mac is virus-free. Nothing to worry about. Let those PC people suffer with their Trojan Horses, spyware and all the rest of the misery that’s part and parcel of living in the Windows world. Serves them right for using the wrong kind of computer.

    Sure, Mac users haven’t had to face anything comparable, but does that mean we’re all home free? To be blunt, the implication here is not exactly true. Every so often, for example, Apple delivers a security update that is supposed to address a potential vulnerability. This isn’t to say that those holes have been exploited in the wild, but it could happen. At the same time, the companies making anti-virus software for the Mac have updated their programs to combat a couple of viruses that exist solely as proofs-of-concept, meaning they occurred in the laboratory but not the real world. Oh yes, there was one limp Mac OS X virus that impacted a few people, and it garnered lots and lots of attention that the Mac’s status as the virus-free computer had ended.

    In recent days, there have been more stories claiming the Mac is finally attracting the wrong kind of attention and that we’re in for some serious trouble. Now that Apple’s market share is on the rise, it’ll only get worse and Apple needs to take these threats seriously and act fast to close the security holes. One story had it that Apple’s attitude towards malware was akin to that of Microsoft a few years ago, before things got out of hand.

    Maybe, maybe not. The fact of the matter is that the first computer virus actually appeared on the Unix platform a number of years ago. The Classic Mac OS had a few dozen, and I even encountered one or two over the years. It wasn’t pretty. On the other hand, we still haven’t even begun to approach the level of danger that confronts the unwary Windows user. It’s enough to make you downright complacent, and perhaps a little scornful of the folks who embraced the operating system that’s on over 90% of the world’s PCs. The TV ad in question celebrates the situation, and assures the viewer that the Mac user doesn’t have to suffer from this stuff.

    But consider when a real threat, one with the potential to impact a large number of Mac OS X users, appears, and it will. It is inevitable simply because there will always be a way to hijack the operating system or cause grief to the unwary person who downloads the wrong file. What will happen then? Will the lawyers file class-action lawsuits claiming Apple was guilty of false advertising by implying the Mac was virus-free? Now if you look at the actual language in that ad, it is correct, technically at least. Macs don’t have 114,000 viruses out there in the wild. But that doesn’t mean anything if you are affected because you avoided Apple’s security updates, and didn’t consider installing anti-virus software before it was too late.

    Did you even turn on Mac OS X’s built-in firewall to protect yourself from Internet predators? It costs you nothing, and can be turned on by opening the Sharing preference panel, clicking Firewall, and then Start. It is activated immediately, and while it may not be the best firewall on the planet, it’ll get the job done.

    Most of those wireless Internet routers out there also afford some form of firewall protection. Too bad password protection isn’t turned on by default, because it only leaves both Mac and PC users vulnerable to access by mischief makers who war drive by their homes or offices. I can tell you, in fact, that I can see several unprotected networks in the neighborhood when I activate AirPort on any of my Macs. No doubt you can as well, and if you try, you can connect to many of them without being challenged with a password prompt.

    Sure the new Mac TV ads, better late than never, may be cute enough, though I can see them wearing on you after a few viewings. They might even help grab a few sales, which is good. But if you get a virus one of these days, don’t complain to Apple about false or misleading advertising. Just protect yourself and get ready for that inevitable rainy day.



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