Macs, the Virus Scare, and Safe Computing

With Intego’s announcement of the new “virus” for Mac OS X on April 8, 2004, for a while it seemed as if there was a bit of a panic through the Mac community. What do you mean there’s a virus for OS X?

The thing is, this “virus” was only a demonstration of how Mac OS X could be vulnerable to malicious programmers, not code that actually did damage to any system.

This brings up the question: Do you need to have virus scanning software installed on your machine to be safe from viruses?

Back when the classic Mac OS was the standard – especially System 6 and 7 – there were several different viruses that would attack (mainly) the resource forks of different files. Some would just slow down the computer; others would actually render your files useless.

One of the most famous Mac viruses was the AutoStart virus, which could be prevented simply by turning off CD-ROM Auto Play in the QuickTime Settings control panel.

There were, of course, different antivirus software packages, like Disinfectant, SAM (Symantec Anti-Virus for Mac), and Virex. These days pretty much the only viruses that can (and do) infect Macs are Word macro viruses, and they infect only Microsoft Word files. These aren’t harmful to your Mac, but they can spread easily and damage your Word document.

If you exchange Word documents with others on a regular basis, it makes sense to have some sort of antivirus software installed. As for myself, I have no antivirus software installed on either my G3 (with OS 9) or my PowerBook G4 (with OS X 10.3), as I usually just create and edit my own Word files and don’t use use ones created by others.

Last week’s MP3 Trojan horse virus announcement shows that Mac OS X is not invulnerable to viruses. There’s no way to say that damaging viruses could not be released for it.


The best ways to protect your computer remains pretty much the same as always. Don’t open unknown email attachments and don’t download suspicious looking files. Even if they can’t damage your computer, they could be forwarded accidentally to an unsuspecting Windows user.

This brings me to my final question. Do even Windows users need antivirus software?

Not really. If you don’t download anything from the Internet or read email on your PC, antivirus software is probably not crucial. Spyware and adware are almost certainly something to protect against, however, and you may want to run an online virus scan once in a while just in case. But full time antivirus software really isn’t necessary on any platform, as long as you take the proper precautions.

The nice thing about the Mac is that this all really isn’t needed if you’re careful, but it’s not due to the Mac OS being a more secure operating system. It has everything to do with the amount of the market share the Mac currently enjoys. With less than 10% market share, a Mac OS virus wouldn’t attack anywhere near the amount of computers that a Windows virus generally attacks. Therefore, there’s less incentive for viruses to be written for the Mac OS.

Basically, be cautious and viruses won’t be a big issue. I’ve never had a Mac virus, and the most I’ve had on a PC is a bit of spyware.

Editor’s note: There’s an ongoing debate regarding the lack of Mac viruses. OS X viruses are a real possibility. With approximately 10 million users, OS X has about 2-3% as many users as Windows. This means that it’s less likely that a virus creator will be using a Mac or choose to attack Macs.A further problem is spreading the virus. Most Windows viruses spread via email, although some are now using peer-to-peer networks, and if a virus sends itself to 100 users, odds are that 90 of them are using some version of Windows – and that some of their computers won’t be adequately protected against viruses.Using the same distribution vector directed at 100 users, a Mac virus might reach 2 to 4 OS X users.A further complication is having the virus actually infect a Mac. Unlike the Windows world, where Microsoft Office and email applications are the norm, Macs don’t have Visual Basic installed, and Mail isn’t going to automatically open and run attachments.Macs aren’t invulnerable to infection, but even if one were to make it into the wild, it would have difficulty spreading itself – and it would do limited damage, since huge portions of OS X are only accessible with administrator access. dk

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