Mac Musings

Viruses, Adware, Spyware, and Worse: The Best Reasons to Use a Mac

Daniel Knight - 2004.12.03

If you've spent any time at all using a Windows PC connected to the Internet, you know the horror of malware - viruses, spyware, adware, mailbots, and other programs that allow others to hijack your computer for their own purposes.

I know, because I use Windows. I know, because pretty much every time I run Ad-Aware SE, Spybot - Search & Destroy, AntiVir, or Anti-Spy (part of the Yahoo! Toolbar for Internet Explorer on Windows PCs), these programs find new things to remove.

It's become so bad that a recent report (see Unprotected PCs can be hijacked in minutes) found that Windows PCs would come under attack within minutes of being connected to the Internet. For that matter, so did Macs, the difference being that none of the attacks compromised the Macs.

In fact, there were no successful compromises of the Mac OS, Linux, or Windows XP computers - but only when ZoneAlarm was used on the XP machine. Firewalls are the best protection Windows PCs have against such attacks.

Macs and Linux boxen have more going for them. First, they are derived from Unix, an operating system that doesn't readily grant root permission, which limits how deeply malware can infect a system. Beyond that, they are minority platforms, and crackers want to get the widest results from their efforts, so they program for the computers that over 90% of people are using.

What We Do Online

You don't need to connect a computer to the Internet to write, crunch numbers, work with a database, or do graphics. You need the Internet for email, the Web, downloads, and messaging.

Email used to be a leading vector for Windows attacks, and virus-laden emails still exist in droves, but most email providers these days include virus detection as a standard feature. And the growing use of web-based email makes it even less likely that a virus will be installed on your PC.

The Web has become a major source of attacks. Clicking on a link could not only bring you to another page but provide a vector for infection. Going way beyond cookies, adware can pop up ads when you're not even using a browser and pick ads based on the pages you're viewing - if you use a Windows PC.

Downloading software has never been more dangerous. In researching which anti-adware, antivirus, firewall, and registry repair programs might be most useful, I learned that a lot of wares purported to solved these problems actually introduce spyware (and worse) when you install them.

That's right - there are programmers creating software that pretends to scan a Windows PC for malware while actually installing malware of its own. I learned that lesson the hard way.

Who Is In Control?

In the old days, your personal computer was your personal computer. There was no adware. There were no viruses. There were no mailbots taking over personal computers to send spam.

Then came the Internet, and suddenly the dominance of Windows became a bad thing. Not only was Windows remarkably insecure - which didn't matter in the old days - but it was also a huge target for the crackers. These malicious hackers cut their teeth learning to infect computers with viruses and used their newfound expertise to devise programs that could spy on Windows users, pop up ads even when Internet Explorer wasn't being used, and turn Windows PCs into spam-sending drone mailbots.

Microsoft worked long and hard on Service Pack 2 for Windows XP so they could address many of the security holes in their operating system. And a host of programmers worked to create freeware, shareware, and commercial antivirus, anti-adware, and firewall programs to help Windows users deal with the onslaught.

Windows users are in a holding pattern. All of these wares need to be updated regularly so they can recognize the latest malware, and the users have to know what's going on inside their computers well enough to know which outside access should be blocked by the firewall and which should be allowed.

Sure, WinXP SP2 is more secure than any previous version of Windows, but there are millions upon millions of people running Windows 98, 2000, Me, and NT. Looking at our site logs, 60% of Windows users coming to Low End Mac have WinXP installed, 21% Win2k, 16% Win95/98/Me, and the rest NT, CE, 3.1, or some unknown version of Windows.

If we can extrapolate from these figures and assume a worldwide installed base of one billion computers:

These numbers may be off by several percentage points in any direction, but the simple fact remains that 60-70% of personal computers in use today are less secure than XP SP2 and remain inviting targets for malware programmers. As older machines are retired and new ones purchased, this will slowly decrease, but the sheer installed base will continue to make older versions of Windows the vector of choice for crackers.

Security and Privacy

I hope you'd never think of submitting a credit card number to an insecure server, but what if you were working on a Windows PC with a spyware keystroke recorder that could share your name, address, credit card number, and even the validation code on the back of the card? That's one of the great risks of using a Windows PC - not that such a program is installed on your computer, but that it might be there without your knowledge.

An insecure operating system makes it easy for others to invade your privacy, whether that's something as simple as popup ads for sites related to the text on Web pages you're visiting or something as sinister as a bot that scans your entire hard drive in search of credit card numbers.

You can run the antivirus, anti-adware, anti-spyware programs. You can set up a firewall. You can spend hours each week cleaning up your computer. You can maintain constant vigilance.

Or you can opt out.

I know, because I am a Mac user.

Why Choose a Mac?

I have plenty of browsers to choose from that will block popups, one of the banes of the World Wide Web. I can install and run antivirus software, but it won't find a thing that can infect my Mac (at least not yet, knock on wood). I can set up a firewall, but I haven't heard of any spyware or adware that runs on the Mac OS.

I don't have to spend a single minute worrying about malware in the Mac OS, Apple releases Security Updates frequently, and Software Update always lets me know when these new updates are available.

Mac OS X and Linux may not be any more (or less) secure than Windows XP Service Pack 2, but that's good enough. Even if OS X represented 20% of the installed base of computers connected to the Internet, it wouldn't be nearly as inviting a target as Windows 98, NT, Me, and older versions of XP.

If OS X, Linux, or XP SP2 were to reach 40% or more of the installed base, you can rest assured that the crackers would turn their attention to the biggest target out there, but I don't think that's ever going to happen with the Mac OS or Linux.

That's as good an argument as any for choosing a Mac over a Windows PC. No viruses. No adware. No spyware. No security breaches. Ongoing security patches. No need to spend hours running anti-this and anti-that software or configuring a firewall correctly.

Beyond that, Macs are great for word processing, number crunching, surfing the Web, reading email, listening to music, working in Photoshop. editing digital video, and playing games - all the things most Windows users do when they're not fighting malware.

That applies whether you're using the computer at home, at school, or in the office. By letting you work on your computer instead of fighting malware, Macs let you be more productive and keep support costs way down.