Worms in Your Apple: A Reality Check

Pat Cutty, Columnist

By now, I’m sure a good number of you Mac users out there have taken note of the school’s new policy mandating the presence of anti-virus software on Macs registered on the network; I certainly have. Having spoken to a lot of Mac users recently, I find that many are scratching their heads, utterly baffled by this new policy. After all… Macs don’t get viruses, right?


Now, I used to be a Mac user myself and I am no lover of Windows, but I must confess that I laugh to myself every time I get asked about this. Let’s face it, some Mac users tend to be a tad snotty about their machines, particularly the “fanbois” (to borrow The Register’s word). You know the sort. The kind of person that would run out and buy bits of Steve Jobs’ dandruff if Apple decided to market them as iFlakes.

Suffice to say, it has made me quite happy to see anti-virus software mandated on Macs here. It speaks well of our IT department when they opt not to subscribe to the popularly accepted delusion of invulnerability.

But enough of my geeky victory dance. Let’s get down to the facts and the real purpose behind this piece: to play mythbuster. I’ll start with the myth that I mentioned above—yes, Macs can get infected with viruses and malware. It is less likely to happen to a Mac than it is to a Windows PC, but the reason for that may surprise you. The fact that Mac OS X is built atop BSD UNIX helps it a bit—it’s a time-tested operating system that is known for its solid design and resilience, but that does not make it invincible—infecting a Mac is harder, yes, but certainly not beyond the abilities of a learned cybercrook.

Rather, the real force that has shielded Mac users from a lot of the internet’s uglier programs is statistics–specifically, market share. In fact, this is the same force that has made Windows such a magnet for malware. Imagine, if you will, that you are a cybercriminal looking to infect computers (usually for the purposes of scaring users into coughing up personal information or to add more computers to a botnet for even more malicious misdeeds).

Obviously, you want to infect as many computers as possible. Windows has a much, much larger market share than Apple does. Why waste development time on a OS that only a small amount of people use, when you can hit an easier target that 90 percent of the world uses? And so, Windows users have been getting the brunt of the malware, while Mac users have happily danced in their fortress of obscurity.

Now, Macs constitute about 15 percent of North American market share. That increase in usage brought with it an influx of new malware, as cybercrooks realized that the Mac user base was now big enough to be a profitable target. Furthermore, Macs can act as carriers for Windows malware, which can cause a lot of problems on large networks like ours. This is yet another reason why the recent virus scanner mandate here is a good thing.

And now for another myth. People seem to think (thanks in large part to the famous “I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC” commercials) that Macs are physically different from PCs. Since 2006, Macs have been powered by the same innards as Windows PCs: x86/amd64 processors and chipsets. Before that time, Macs were actually different on the inside, but nowadays the hardware (with the exception of some connection ports) is pretty much identical. The build quality of Macs is generally equivalent to similarly priced PCs, and Macs are made by the same cheap, deprived and outsourced Chinese laborers as PCs.

Macs used to be the bastion platform of choice for creative people- artists, developers, graphic designers, typographers, musicians, video editors, etc. These people are the reason Apple survived the 1990s. Nowadays though, Apple is becoming more and more focused on the average consumer. OS X has become a lot more user-friendly (or dumbass-proof, as my old boss used to say) at the expense of functionality, customizable, and the creative sorts mentioned above. A perfect example is Final Cut Pro 10, which infuriated professional video editors by sacrificing a lot of features in the interest of making the program more “n00b-friendly.”

The intent of this piece is not to disparage Macs or Apple. They make some decent products, and I’ll be the first to admit that their customer service is better than most. Granted, I did poke fun at a certain category of Apple users (the arrogant ignoramuses who think that the presence of that shiny Apple logo will grant their machines invulnerability) but the primary purpose was to inform and educate. If you want to get a Mac, go for it, but do it for the right reasons, not because of myths and assumptions. And don’t forget to keep that virus scanner up to date!

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