Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, February 7, 2003

Better Safe than Sorry: The Dangers of Feeling Immune on a Mac

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The Dangers of Immunity columns/tangible/01/08/08/

It is true that up to now, Macs have been relatively ignored by virus makers, and except for cross-platform Microsoft Word Macro viruses (which generally don't hurt Macs, though they can interfere with operations), Macs have been immune to PC viruses like Code Red and SirCam. The lack of viruses on the Mac platform is certainly a good selling point for buying a Mac -- especially to naive computer people who think they must buy a PC so they can be compatible with everyone else: that compatibility means they're also virus-compatible.

But have you noticed the low-key way Apple sells that fact?

It's rarely mentioned except as a bullet point buried on a marketing data sheet.

Why doesn't Apple remind everyone that Macs are immune from all these viruses?

I'll tell you why: Macs are not immune from viruses, just PC viruses. Apple doesn't want to draw attention to the Mac platform from virus makers who'd probably release a Mac virus just to spite the company that publicly said, "Look! No viruses here!"

If hackers wanted to write a Mac virus, they would: it's not especially difficult. In fact, because Mac users are so used to viruses not being a factor, it'd probably be easier to distribute a Mac virus! (On a PC, anti-virus software is a necessity, while few Mac users bother.)

(In fact, PC viruses are one of the main reasons I think it's more intelligent to run Windows inside a "virtual box" like Virtual PC than on a real PC. With a real computer, your whole system goes down when infected, but with VPC you can just boot off a backup OS and disinfect the bad virtual disk with anti-virus software. In the worst case, you can do work on the Mac until the "PC" is fixed. I actually know PC owners who were so damaged by a virus they had to buy a new computer. [I guess that was easier than fixing the old one.])

Macs are just as susceptible to viruses as PCs. Granted, Mac users tend to be more individualistic than the herds of PC-using sheep, so there are half a dozen popular email clients on the Mac while most PC users have settled down with Outlook Express.

(It is herd mentality and monopolistic software platforms that enables viruses to spread: if everyone's using the same software, the virus is not only simpler to write, but it propagates faster. That's one of the main reasons I'm against any computer platform being dominant. That's especially true of government and mission-critical Internet servers, where there should be a wide variety of operating systems and hardware in service, to prevent a flaw characteristic of a single design from bringing down the entire affair. If banks and the government all standardize on Windows, we're all going to suffer one black day in the future.)

It is true that the Windows platform has more security holes than the Mac OS, and the vast majority of PC users have no idea how their computer works and thus don't notice unusual virus behavior in time to stop it. It is also true that Windows gives virus writers access to the operating system at the lowest levels, so an email attachment can do infinite damage.

But most modern Macs do have AppleScript -- which is surprisingly powerful.

Recently, an AppleScript virus was distributed via email, and of course it infected a few Macs.
(It didn't affect me as I still use ancient Claris Emailer, not Outlook or Eudora, for which it was designed.)

The big advantage Macs have in terms of distribution is that a virus geared toward the Mac won't run on PCs and therefore won't be distributed further. (It's especially good that Mac applications are doubled-forked files and the resource fork usually gets separated when received by a PC, rendering the app inoperable unless transmitted inside a Stuffit or Zip archive.)

As the virus spreads, it comes to a halt at each PC it hits.

Since there are so many PCs out there, Mac email viruses don't spread as easily as the PC variety.

*Unfortunately, Mac users tend to be a communal lot, and therefore they stick together and often share files. That's an ideal way for viruses and worms to spread. Exercise caution when opening attachments, even if they come from Mac friends.

*Practice Safe Computing It's not an exaggeration to say that 90% of virus distribution is caused by stupidity and ignorance. Even though you're using a Mac, practice safe computing.

*Scan all disks you receive from others with an anti-virus program.

*Don't open unknown attachments, or "force" them to open in an application (don't double-click on them). A common virus technique is the Trojan Horse: a file that's supposed to be a picture is really a program, so when you double-click on it, it runs the virus which can now infect your system and spread its evil. What I do is drag pictures to my Photoshop icon, or Word documents to BBEdit. If it's really a picture or text document, it will open: if it's a virus masquerading as a data file, it won't.

*Don't forward viruses to others. Even if you're immune to a virus, don't be part of the problem and forward the virus to someone else, who may be susceptible to it.

*Avoid HTML email. One of the things I like about my email program is that it doesn't read HTML files: Outlook Express and other programs that do are more vulnerable to viruses because HTML is essentially code that's being processed (like any web page), and that code could tell the email program to run a dangerous script (which Outlook will gladly do). That poses a serious security risk because you don't even have to open the attachment, just view the email to launch the virus!

*Periodically run an anti-virus program, if you have one, on your entire computer to make sure you haven't been infected without realizing it.

*Be alert: know how your computer's supposed to work, and watch for unusual behavior. If you keep your email program's out box empty, for instance, and suddenly your email program is sending out a message, you know something strange is happening.

*Keep current backups of all your data, and have an emergency boot CD handy in case your OS becomes corrupted. I also keep a periodic backup of my email program in case it goes down.

Should a virus infect me, I could be back up and running fairly quickly. I hope.

*The Future Looks Black If you think viruses are bad now, you haven't seen anything yet. Most of the popular viruses being created now are mere jokes, silly pranks created by amateurs wanting to make an underground name for themselves.

In the next decade, I predict computer viruses will be a key form of cyber-terrorism. Disgruntled employees, frustrated lovers, political wackos, third-world revolutionaries, etc., will flood the world with viruses, worms, and Trojan Horses designed to do real damage.

For example, can you imagine a virus that specifically attempts to disrupt the stock market (either by attacking the Dow Jones computers directly, or by flooding stock market websites with orders using your computer and your stock market account as the means)? What about viruses that clog networks or create denial-of-service attacks on businesses? The entire Internet could, theoretically, be shut off by an especially wicked virus.

As the Internet itself becomes more of a common platform, watch out for Java, Javascript, and perhaps even Flash or Shockwave viruses. And with the advent of more and more aggressive forms of marketing these days, I wouldn't be surprised if a few unethical businesses attempt to create a spam virus that floods the Internet with sales pitches or forces people to a certain website to boost traffic.

Worse, the virus writers are going to get smarter. As viruses become a threat to big business and big government steps in with laws and serious penalties, the writers of these things will make their creatures smarter and more subtle. Today's virus writers are greedy: as soon as the virus is launched it begins its destructive behavior. What would happen if someone make a virus that didn't do anything but spread for six months? Billions of systems would be infected and not even know it!

Another thing to think about: today's viruses are little more than vandalism, a form of random destruction that small minds get off on. What's going to happen when people figure out how to use viruses for profit? For instance, a virus could be created that gathers email addresses, credit card numbers, or other personal data to be sold on the black market.

The picture ahead isn't necessarily great for Mac users either. Mac OS X is here, and along with nice features like pre-emptive multitasking and protected memory, we get UNIX, with entirely new methods of operating and many unknowns. Security is completely different under Mac OS X. In many ways it's better than Mac OS (more control), but there are loopholes and of course it's more complicated.

Also, UNIX is a standard around the world, making Mac OS X ports of existing UNIX viruses easy (not that there are many UNIX viruses). (It theoretically could be possible to make a UNIX virus which could infect multiple kinds of UNIX operating systems, though the Mac has an advantage in that it runs on a different central processing unit than most of the rest of the industry.)

In general, viruses on the Mac are nothing more than an inconvenience and minor annoyance.

They take up space in your email and waste your Internet bandwidth, but they don't actually hurt you. But that could change at any time if a few virus writers decide to focus on the Mac. Macs are still the safest computing environment (short of a closed system), but don't be overconfident and don't neglect simple security precautions.

Reprinted with permission from author
Original article accessible at: columns/tangible/01/08/08/

[My advice]

Educate yourself, use common sense, and take the appropriate precautions. If you do, your Mac will probably remain safe; if you don't, you're likely to be sorry.

Knowledge is power. If you want to find out more about Macintosh security, here are a few interesting links to follow:

Mac Security Resources security.html

Mac OS X - Security Introduction internet/macosx/securityintro.html

Protect your Mac from spyware, trojans, and keystroke loggers

Mac security articles macsecurity/

General Macintosh Virus FAQ computer-virus/macintosh-faq/

Internet Security for Your Macintosh: A Guide for the Rest of Us, by Alan Oppenheimer and Charles Whitaker, from Peachpit Press. exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/ 0201749696/ 002-9898048-3576858? vi=glance

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posted by Robin Good on Friday, February 7 2003, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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