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Alan Zisman on the Mac

Macs More Secure than Windows in the Online World

- 2007.04.13 - Tip Jar

According to statistics posted recently on McAfee's Avert Labs blog by Marius van Oers, the security and anti-virus company is aware of some 236,000 "malicious malware items" such as computer viruses and spyware.

Of those nearly quarter million nasty bits and pieces, about 700 are aimed at computers running various Unix and Linux operating systems. Mac OS X is the target of seven.

Nearly all of the rest are aimed at Microsoft Windows users.

The question Windows users tend to ask, however, is a good one. Are there fewer viruses and spyware aimed at the Mac and Linux because these platforms are inherently more secure than Windows, or are these computing platforms simply less tempting targets for malware because of their minority status?

Often, when a question seems to have more than one answer, both explanations account for part of the answer.

Infectious diseases are more likely to spread when people are packed tightly together in cities than when a population is thinly spread. The same is true for computer viruses; the large number of Windows users makes it easy for infections to spread from one computer to another and offer malware creators more return on their effort.

Over the years, Microsoft made a number of design decisions for Windows and other software products that traded security for ease of customization and use. For instance, the macro language bundled with Microsoft Office (Visual Basic for Applications) made it possible for power users to automate complex tasks. That same power made it equally possible to use VBA to infect Word and Excel documents.

Windows 2000 and XP users typically run (whether they know it or not) as administrative users with full power to install and remove software, make changes to the system setup and more. But when you're logged on in that way, spyware and viruses can also install themselves and make system changes without needing authorization. They can even do this invisibly in the background.

Running the computer as a limited user would be safer, but most users don't do that; those that try it tend to give it up - too many everyday tasks, such as installing Microsoft's own updates, fail to work.

It's not the same for Linux and Mac OS X users. No matter how they're logged on to their computer, they get asked to type their password for any software installation that's going to change the computer setup.

Unlike on a typical Windows system, any virus or spyware trying to install itself would have to ask for explicit approval. The result: It's much harder to infect a Linux or Mac system, so users spend less time on security and more on getting their work done.

Microsoft's new Windows Vista tries to copy that: What Microsoft calls User Account Control is turned on by default. As on a Mac, UAC requires user approval before system changes can be made. Microsoft, however, made the list of actions needing approval much larger - even renaming an icon on the desktop may require multiple OKs. It's more secure, but also more annoying.

There is an irony, however. As mentioned in last week's column, a big selling point for the latest generations of Macs is their newfound ability to run Windows and Windows software.

Whether running on a Mac or any other PC, Windows remains just as vulnerable to those 236,000 malicious malware items. LEM

This article was first published in Business in Vancouver, High Tech Office column, April 10-16, 2007.

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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