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Mac Viruses: The Hen’s Tooth Of Malware

March 22nd, 2006

As a long serving citizen of the Internet I have, in my time, accumulated membership to a number of email groups (communities). I actively participate in some of these and in others I tend to just lurk – reading the posts of others, but rarely submitting my own. I find both forms of participation useful and both help me to keep myself informed and to maintain a barometer of the prevailing opinions and mood of fellow netizens.

It was in one of these groups that I first heard reports of a virus (Leap.A) that had started to infect Apple’s Mac OS X operating system. I was not surprised that this had happened; in fact I was quite taken aback that it had not happened before! But I was flabbergasted by the response of the Mac Mafia to this news.

Now before I go any further, and for fear of perpetual damnation from Mac users, let me set out my operating system credentials! It is true that I have a Windows XP laptop, but it is also true that I spend a large amount of my time administering Red Hat Linux servers and looking at websites on Macs with Tiger (Mac OS X V10.4). I subscribe to neither the Microsoft nor Apple camps preferring instead to be objective about my opinions. I select operating system usage according to the suitability of fit and resource availability rather than by Pavlovian response. All in all I like to think that I am pretty ecumenical with my computer usage and rational with my views. Ok, so now I’ve covered my tracks, back to the story.

The responses from Mac users fell broadly into three categories:

Macs Can’t Get Viruses!

Many people earnestly announced that due to the quality of the programming of Mac OS, it was impossible for Macs to get viruses. That sort of thing only happened in the Microsoft world. The strength of their belief that this was true was matched only by my disbelief that they could possibly have thought this!

It’s Not a Virus!

Some respondents refuted that Leap.A was a virus at all; preferring instead to describe it as a worm; as if that’s somehow better. Technically correct they might be, but in my opinion it is immaterial, whether Leap.A is self propagating or requires user intervention to infect its target. The unwarranted presence of a potentially malicious third-party “program” on your system, and what it is about to do, is what you should be worrying about! Not what it is called. Worms are in fact more dangerous as they can infect vulnerable systems without user intervention.

So what? There are many more viruses for Windows.

Certainly it is true that the vast majority of viruses target Windows. And I agree that this is an argument for using Macs rather than PCs; but it is not an excuse to be flippant about security.

Throughout my IT career and in life in general I have always held the following to be true; “nothing is ever totally secure and only a fool would ever think otherwise”. The assumption that something is infallible is at best naпve and at worst stupid; it can only invite trouble. Mac users that believe their system is impregnable are in for a rude awakening.

It is also true that extremely loud and public declarations of the impregnability of a system will ultimately reach the ears of those driven to proving the fallibility of these same systems. Hackers trophy hunt and there are few bigger trophies than cracking a system “that cannot be cracked”. Mac users that loudly promulgate the claim that Macs are invulnerable to viruses only make it more likely that the crosshairs of hackers will start to focus on Mac OS X.

Mac zealots will argue that their operating system has fewer viruses because it is much better programmed than Windows; and to some extent they might have a point. But surely the most significant reason that there are so many viruses for Windows is because the vast majority of the world uses Windows. There can be little satisfaction to a hacker in writing a virus that only infects a tiny global network of nodes. This is the primary reason, in my opinion, why Mac OS X has thus far been relatively virus free. But Mac OS X usage is growing so who knows? Maybe Leap.A is at the vanguard? Either way Macintosh owners would be prudent to take precautions.

By Nicholas Mann, Managing Director Interdirect

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