Vital Tips for Securing Your New Mac

So you were one of the lucky ones who received (or bought yourself) your first Mac over the holiday period. Congratulations, and welcome to the Mac community! Perhaps, like more and more people, you’ve made the move from that other operating system – you know, the one that’s a little more popular, but also not quite as well-designed, and more prone to security issues.

The one where you’re considered a brave person to go online without the full metal jacket of antivirus, antispam, antimalware, and firewall in place. If so, then chances are that you’ve already started thinking about what you need to do in order to protect your new machine from viruses, trojans, and other kinds of nasties that you may have encountered previously.

Many will tell you not to bother – Macs don’t get viruses, right? It’s true to say that there are fewer such issues with Macs (after all, smaller market-share means less incentive to antisocial types), but it’d be foolish not to take even the most basic precautions in order to keep your data and your personal information safe.

When I made the switch, I immediately went in search of the kinds of protection I was used to having in place before I would bring my computer anywhere near a network connection of any kind. But friends talked me down, reassured me that I didn’t really need the same level of protection for my shiny new MacBook. But they did offer a few little tips, which I will pass on in this article, just to cover the basics…

Security Updates

First off, you want to be sure that you have all the latest security updates installed. Whenever a problem is found in the wild – a new virus or exploit of some other kind – Apple is usually quite snappy in issuing a fix for the issue. So you want to make sure that your Mac is set to receive these updates automatically.

Checking for New Software

Checking for New Software

By default, OS X checks once per week, but you can set it to look for updates more (or less) frequently by opening ‘Software Update’ in System Preferences and selecting from the pull-down menu.

Software Update

Software Update

You can also run Software Update manually at any time by clicking on the Apple logo in the menubar and selecting it there.

A next step that’s worth taking is switching on your Mac’s built-in firewall. It used to be that this was disabled by default, but the last few versions of OS X have had it turned on automatically. Again, you will find the Firewall in System Preferences, this time under ‘Security’, and then click on the ‘Firewall’ tab.

Firewall

Firewall

The truth is that most users are likely to be behind pretty secure hardware firewalls built into their routers most of the time, but it’s still a good idea to turn on the software firewall, and especially so if you’re accessing the web via a shared access point, such as wifi in a cafe or airport.

Physical Theft

And while we’re loitering in places like that, there are steps you should take to secure your machine here too. Of course, there are physical things, like good old Kensington locks, or just plain making sure you never leave your machine unattended.

In case of disaster striking, though, I’ve installed Orbicule’s Undercover in the hope that it’ll help recover my machine. But I’ve also taken a few other precautions like setting my screen to lock when the screensaver comes on, so that a password is needed to get back in (in the ‘General’ tab of ‘Security’ in System Preferences), and ensuring that Automatic login is switched off across all users on the machine (in the same tab).

General Security Settings

General Security Settings

There’s a good chance that when you open this Security settings panel it will look a little different: everything other than the first line will likely be greyed-out, and the lock at the bottom-left will be closed, like this:

Settings Locked

Settings Locked

As soon as you click on the lock, you will see this dialogue-box:

Authorising

Authorising

If you know an Administrator name and password, entering it here will unlock the further options. Chances are that you will see this window pop up now and then when you’re installing new software. Always pay careful attention to which application is asking for authorisation – if you half-consciously gave full rights to your machine to some rogue process, you might be letting yourself in for a world of pain and difficulty. So take care, and be sure you know what you’re authorising every time you see this window.

The Keychain

You may already have come across the Keychain. This is the system built into your Mac that remembers all your passwords and other important security information. When you log in to OS X, by default you unlock the default Keychain (known as the Login Keychain), which gives you access to the information stored there.

You can increase security by setting it to lock after a specified time period – of course, in doing this you lose some convenience, as you will have to repeatedly unlock the Keychain as applications or services try to access it after the specified lock-time. But it might be worth doing, especially, again, if you’re working in a public place.

To do this, run the Keychain Access application, which you will find in /Applications/Utilities folder.

Keychain Access

Keychain Access

Right-click on ‘login’ under the Keychains section on the left of the window and select ‘Change settings for Keychain “Login”…’. It should be obvious what you need to do in the next window to set a time after which your Keychain will lock and your passwords will be secure.

Locking After Inactivity

Locking After Inactivity

And Finally? Viruses

And, finally, what about viruses? Well, most of the big hitters from the PC antivirus market offer Mac solutions, too, including Norton Antivirus for Mac. The other big name you will hear is Intego, whose Virus Barrier X5 usually reviews well. And two freeware options are ClamXav and iAntiVirus, which also generally receives good reviews.

If you are running Windows on your Mac, then you definitely, without a doubt, need antivirus installed in that Windows virtual machine. To tell the truth, though, although I have a licence for Virus Barrier X5, I’ve stopped running it on my Mac. I’m careful to keep virus definitions updated in NOD32 on my Windows install, but I got tired of X5 running the fans whenever it did something in the background on my Mac, so I’ve gotten rid of it.

There are dangers out there, and choosing not to run antivirus on your Mac needs to be a decision you make with your eyes open – after all, Apple do acknowledge that running antivirus software may offer additional protection (see here, at the very bottom, under ‘Security Advice’). It’s up to you.

In the end, the truth is that your new Mac is more secure than any Windows machine, so long as you take care of a few basics – as outlined here. In a future article, I’ll say more about a couple of applications that can make your life easier and protect your privacy more stringently.