Does Your Mac Need A Virus Scanner?

Today’s discussion is a classic one: are Macs really impervious to the malware threats so rampant on PCs? Due to the rapidly changing nature of technology and the ever-increasing acceptance of Macs, this is a question that needs to be periodically revisited.

We’ve recently seen Apple’s bulletproof security claims become quite tarnished in light of threats such as MAC Defender. Read on to see if you should be concerned.

MAC Defender: The First Major Mac Threat?

At the start of May, one of the first major viral outbreaks on the Mac platform was detected, prompting many users of Apple’s OS to re-question its security and protection.

MAC Defender was a program that acted and looked like a real spyware removal client and through SEO poisoning, meaning that the program would show at the top of most major search engines, unsuspecting users clicked on the website, automatically starting the download and installation of the software onto the user’s Mac.

Although the program looked professional and genuine, it was far from this. After installation, it displayed regular notifications of “threats” to your computer and prompted you to purchase a “license” if you wanted to remove the fake threats from your Mac. It sounds all well and good, but now your credit card and personal information are in the hands of the hackers, giving them open access to your bank account and your hard-earned funds.


MAC Defender and the fake threat notifications

Although Apple did respond to the threat quickly by releasing a security update for Mac OS X to patch up this issue, the hackers quickly found a workaround and many Mac users were left questioning the overall security of their computer and whether the MAC Defender threat was an isolated issue or one that could be repeated in the future. Macs have always been noted for their security and reliability, and seeing as only around 15% of all of the computers on the home market are Macs, hackers traditionally focused on writing viruses for Windows, which has a greater dominance.

Mac OS X Security

The feature on the Mac page of Apple's website, advertising its security

However, given the rise in popularity of Macs in recent years, especially since the transition to Intel, are we going to see more threats to a platform that was traditionally seen as invincible against viruses? The answer, unfortunately, is most probably. The recent MAC Defender attack highlighted weaknesses in Apple’s platform, and although a security update has been released, hackers are known to be extremely persistent and they did indeed try again (and succeeded). Although the program was relatively easy to remove, it still bypassed Apple’s supposedly rock-solid security measures.


Apple released Security Update 2011-003 at the end of May, which detected and removed the MAC Defender threat

Chris Clymer, a consultant at SecureState, fears for the Mac’s security. With regards to OS X, he stated:

…there’s actually a lot of things that have not necessarily been developed as well as on the Microsoft platform. It’s probably more vulnerable in many ways.”

Many Mac users do not run anti-virus software or anti-spyware software, unlike most Windows users, who generally run a commercial anti-virus software such as Norton or McAfee (many which come bundled with the purchase of the computer) along with an anti-spyware program, such as Windows Defender. Apple does not do this and only sells a limited range of security software.

Do I Need Anti-Virus?

In my opinion, yes. The recent MAC Defender threat has highlighted the fact that Macs aren’t as invincible as people think, and for an extra $50 or so, it is worth having piece of mind and splashing out on some decent anti-virus software and keeping your Mac nice and clean.

What Are the Options?

There has been a recent rise in anti-virus software released specifically for the Mac platform. If you walked down the aisle of any computer store a few years ago, you would have been greeted by purely Windows-only software but now developers of such software such as McAfee and Norton are broadening their horizons and releasing Mac versions of their popular anti-virus software.

However, before installing any anti-virus software, you should check a few basic things to make sure your experience online is a secure one.

  1. Regularly check for software updates for your Mac; Apple does release them on a regular basis so do check to make sure you’re not missing out on an important security update.
  2. Make sure your in-built firewall is turned ON – this prevents anyone from gaining unauthorized access to your computer without you knowing (and in Snow Leopard it isn’t turned on by default). If this doesn’t give you enough piece of mind, then consider investing in Little Snitch (€29.95) – which aggressively monitors all outgoing and incoming connections on your Mac.
  3. For extra security, consider encrypting your Home folder, and thereby any sensitive personal information through FileVault (accessed through Security in System Preferences). Depending on the size of your Home folder, it can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, but using it means that hackers cannot access your Home folder.
  4. When online, be wary about what sites you visit and never give out credit card or other information to insecure sites. Remember: if the sites looks dodgy, then it probably is.

Here are 4 of the best ways to keep your Mac squeaky clean and free of any infections.

ClamXAV Icon 


ClamXAV is a free, simple to use virus scanner which scans your hard drive and flags up any errors. You can quarantine any infected files and folders or remove them completely. The virus database is updated regularly ensuring constant protection.
Price: Free
Requires: Mac OS X 10.4 and above


VirusBarrier X6

The developer of VirusBarrier X6, Intego was the company that actually originally discovered the MAC Defender threat. Their anti-virus software, although a little on the expensive side, also includes anti-spyware and an additional firewall, as well as featuring an easy-to-use interface and additional monitoring tools.
Price: £47.78 (around $78) for the anti-virus software; the complete internet security package costs £71.70 (around $119)
Requires: Mac OS X 10.5 and above


Sophos Anti-Virus

Sophos is a popular anti-virus solution for Windows users, however now Mac users can indulge in its benefits. Sophos runs discreetly in the background and allows you to scan your Mac for any viruses and threats (even those designed for Windows). The virus database is regularly updated and allows you to quarantine or delete any threats you find.
Price: Free
Requires: Mac OS X 10.4 and above


Norton Anti-Virus for Mac

Norton’s popular anti-virus software has been ported to the Mac and its features are much the same as what is offered in the Windows version: real-time protection against any incoming threats. It is, however, a little pricey for the features offered.
Price: $49.95
Requires: Mac OS X 10.5 and above


To sum up, as Apple products increase in ubiquity, the promise of the platform being a safe haven for those tired of malware threats may be coming to a close. I think it’s essential to pick up some good protection software for your Mac, even if you think a legitimate threat is a remote possibility.

If you want to find out more about Mac security, then read MacWorld UK’s excellent article on why Mac OS X may actually be more vulnerable than Windows.

This is a guest opinion/advice piece and therefore does not necessarily reflect the views of the AppStorm team. Feel free to debate away in the comments if you disagree with James’ claims!