Sunday, January 20, 2013

Can a Mac be Hacked?

A friend on Facebook recently complained that her email had been hacked. The evidence was that people on her contact list were getting emails that weren’t from her.

Now people’s email accounts do get hacked pretty regularly. Especially if they have a trivial password, but there are other ways too, even if you have an excellent password.

 It is also possible that the email wasn’t hacked, but that the computer was hacked. In other words, she might have gotten a virus or a Trojan horse or some other kind of malware. The virus then sent her contact list to some server somewhere and some criminal then used that information for additional attacks of some kind. Sadly, it is something that occurs hundreds or even thousands of times a day.

One of her friends suggested she run a virus scan … good advice.

But my friend has a Mac and didn’t know how to run a virus scan. That is probably because, like most Mac owners, she has no anti-virus installed. Should she?

The controversy is long and bitter. Does Mac OS X need anti-malware software to protect it? Is OS X inherently safer than Windows or is it simply not popular enough for hackers to care about it?

Even the popular series of Mac vs. PC television commercials had some fun with this issue. (Remember those … what happened to them?) But there is a critical question at the heart of what can seem, on the surface, to be a trivial issue. There are points on both sides of the issue. Both sides would like you to believe that their side is the correct one, and that various actions (or inactions) should naturally come out of whether or not OS X is as prone to malware as Windows.

The Windows contingent (that is, Microsoft and their fans) would have you believe that they have problems with malware (viruses and the like) because they own the vast majority of the operating system market. This theory goes that OS X (and, by the way, Linux) systems are so small a percentage of all computer systems that they are not an attractive target for hackers. Rather than write their viruses and key-loggers for the minority, hackers don’t bother with the small stuff and instead go for the largest throat that they can find.

The OS X contingent (that is, Apple and their fans) adopt the viewpoint that OS X is simply more resistant to hackers than is Windows, because it is based on Unix (as is Linux) and Unix and its derivatives are simply more secure. This group often points to the fact that that Web servers rarely get hacked and that most Web servers run Linux; it then follows that Unix-like (*nix) systems are inherently safer to operate than Windows.

There is yet a third contingent (anti-virus software builders like McAfee and Symantec) that would have you believe that all personal (and professional) systems are prone to attack from hackers. They make this point for corporate profit reasons; if they can convince you that all systems are equally prone to attack from hackers, they will sell more software and therefore make more money. From the point of view of a person holding the anti-malware hammer, all computer systems look like malware targets.

Regardless of the reason, it is true that owners of OS X system are not often hit by viruses or other malware. The only exception (and this exception is much less common on Macs than PCs) is attacks via browsers. It must be remembered (though it rarely is) that the Internet in an inherently unsafe place and venturing there without an appropriate software condom may well be unsafe. The only question is whether or not *nix systems come with a sufficient software condom already in place from the factory.

You may wish to check my recent article on just some of the ways that virtually all modern browsers can release all kinds of personal information to web sites being visited. You will find the article here:

The practical answer is much easier than the esoteric one. To date, there have been very few problems with malware on Mac OS X systems, which is not to say that they do not exist. The known problems, though, are sufficiently rare that there are virtually no customers available for OS X anti-virus software programs. Such software exists, in sort of a halfhearted way, as do hacker exploits for things like Safari, the Apple standard browser.

This is a situation that needs watching. Do some research on your own. Pay attention to the tech press so you hear all sides. Set up a Google alert for “OS X virus” and see what comes in. You will notice if Mac owners begin to have problems with malware by the incredibly loud cries of pain from the direction of Cupertino. In the end, only you can answer this question, and to do so you need to stay informed. When you begin to feel that you have a real reason to worry about malware, because of the prevalence of malware problems around you, it will be time to start searching for some OS X anti-virus software to buy. I know Symantec and others would be willing to sell it to you.

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