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The FUD Report: More Mac OS X Virus Myths

When I interviewed Symantec’s Mike Romo about its latest Mac security software, Norton Confidential, I had to wonder whether the product made any sense. The new application, which apparently shipped simultaneously on the Windows platform, offers four key features that are designed to protect you against phishing, loss or tampering of valuable files and information and invasions by network intruders.

The first is probably the most significant, as it impacts the next two. Here things get a little strange, for you see, the first version ships as essentially a plugin for Firefox; Safari compatibility will come later. As you might have heard, version 2.0 of Firefox, now available in final candidate form, already has phishing protection.

I suppose Symantec might argue that its protection algorithms are more powerful, and perhaps updated more regularly. On the other hand, if you are careful about responding to fake messages pretending to be from financial institutions that ask you to reenter your account information to preserve your account, you’ll probably be safe anyway. As to network intrusions, wouldn’t those regular security updates from Apple and using a firewall be sufficient? I’m wondering.

So I’m on the fence about Norton Confidential right now, though I suppose extra protection is never a bad thing. However, version 1.0 appears to have caused at least one kernel panic on my Power Mac G5 quad, and I also noticed a small loss in Internet bandwidth, which can grow more severe if you add every single protection option.

All this raises the larger question of whether you really need third party security protection on your Mac. With the recent growth of the platform, some tech writers, and certainly the makers of security software, are claiming that Mac OS X is apt to become a more compelling target for malware any minute now. So far, except for some proofs of concept, and perhaps one infection that impacted a very small number of users, there hasn’t been a real Mac virus in years, not since the Classic Mac OS was around.

Certainly, the Mac is not an invisible platform, despite a worldwide market share in the single digits. There are, for example, roughly twenty million Mac OS X users out there. A major virus infection can certainly cause plenty of havoc. Surely that’s a large enough market to attract some attention, and wouldn’t an Internet criminal want to be the first to create that virus and see it spread far and wide?

Or maybe they just like Apple and hate Microsoft, which is why the latter gets almost all the attention.

Although Consumer Reports magazine continues to gloss over the fact, every single penny of the billions of dollars lost from computer malware in recent years occurred on the Windows platform. In fact, there are already reports of intrusions on Windows Vista, which hasn’t even been released yet. Sure, there may be a few million beta testers, but that’s still far less than the Mac’s user base.

True, Mac OS X is built upon a tried and tested Unix core, so it’s fair to say that the system is locked down in a more robust fashion than Windows. In fact, Microsoft has claimed that it created Windows Vista with superior security in mind, and that may be true, although that isn’t stopping Microsoft from touting its own security software package to protect you from the slings and arrows of the Internet.

However, no computing platform is immune. While it’s hard to justify using Mac malware protection software right now, except to keep you from spreading Windows viruses by email to unwary friends and family members, bad things might indeed happen some day.

The other night, I talked about Mac security with long-time tech talk show host Craig Crossman, on his nationally-syndicated Computer America radio show. He said he didn’t use any virus protection. And the guest for the second hour of that broadcast, best-selling Mac author Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus, said the very same thing.

I take a somewhat more obsessive/compulsive approach. My Power Mac remains unprotected, except for Mac OS X’s built-in firewall, and the intrusion protection afforded by my wireless router. My MacBook Pro, however, indeed has a virus package installed, since it travels a lot. Perhaps that’s a bit of overkill, but I’m prepared to extend that protection to my desktop computer the moment the situation changes.

For now, I’m just watching and hoping things won’t get worse any time soon.