Apple users face growing threats to computer security

Blair Hanley Frank

On April 4, Russian security research firm Dr. Web released a report stating that 600,000 computers running Apple’s Mac OS X operating system were infected with a piece of malware known in security circles as Flashback. That announcement marked the most significant successful virus attack on the Mac platform, and current estimates show that infections remain in the hundreds of thousands, even after Flashback has been widely publicized. When I talked to my friends about the threat, I heard a common refrain: “Aren’t Macs immune to viruses?” Flashback is a wake-up call: Macs are not immune to viruses, as much as we would like to think they are.

Malware on the Mac is nothing new, of course. Over the course of Apple’s history, there has always been some virus threat to the Mac platform. But looking over the rogues’ gallery of potential threats, nothing has ever been nearly as significant as Flashback. If Dr. Web’s estimate is correct, nearly 1 percent of the entire Mac OS X userbase is infected with Flashback. In the world of computer security, that is a massive number.

Apple’s biggest weapon against threats up until this point has been OS X’s relatively slim market share compared to Windows. Basically, since coding a virus for the Mac is different from coding a virus for a Windows PC, it made more sense for virus creators to write for the dominant platform, in this case, Windows. However, since Apple has been doing better and better in the personal computing market in the past few years, more unsavory types will be interested in writing exploits for the Mac.

That’s a huge problem, because Mac users haven’t been conditioned to protect themselves from viruses. While Apple can continue to react to threats, users will still be vulnerable until Apple pushes out a fix. That’s why it’s so important to stop buying into the delusion that Macs can’t get viruses. They can, they do, and the number of threats to your computer’s security will only continue to grow. If you’re a Mac user who has avoided being diligent with your security regimen, now is a really good time to start.

The most important thing to do now is to first run Apple’s Software Update utility, which will install a tool that’s designed to find and remove any traces of Flashback. After that, be sure to install some form of anti-virus software. I recommend ClamXAV, which is an open-source, lightweight anti-virus offering that should give you ample protection against malware without costing you a cent. Then, all you have to do is keep it up to date and continue to scan your computer on a regular basis. If you don’t think there’s any chance you’ve been infected by Flashback, think again: It’s possible to contract it just through visiting an infected web server. (Nobody knows which servers are infected and which servers aren’t.) If you own a Mac, you must secure it as soon as possible.

Mac users have to protect themselves against viruses now. While Apple will probably do everything in its power to shield users from exploits and malware, those efforts can only go so far. Resting on the relative anonymity of yesteryear is not a feasible strategy for protecting your computer.