Do I need to run AntiVirus on my Mac?

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For the longest time, Macs seem to have maintained a reputation in the industry for enjoying Fort-Knox like security. In many ways this has been true. The latest version of Apple’s OSX (Snow Leopard) is built on Darwin Linux foundations, and is one of the most secure commercially available desktop operating systems.

However, recently things have changed. Macs are increasingly leaving the confines of the music and graphic arts studios and finding themselves in family settings. So what’s wrong with that you ask.

Increased exposure = increased risk

Well, a few years ago most Macs sat in studios being used for design, video, or music production. They did this day after day, and because they hardly ever got used for surfing the net, experimenting with shareware, or opening those dodgy, yet humorous PDFs, Powerpoint presentations, and other files that seem to do the rounds, they were simply not exposed to as many potential risks.

Nowadays Macs are a central part of home life – email, games, shareware all get loaded on Macs, often by casual users who think their invincible Mac will shield them from the scum bags that infect their “PC” friends. Is this complacency? I think so, and here’s why.

Chinks in the armour

Mac OSX is incredibly secure, and gets regular patches as anyone who owns an Intel Mac will know. However, almost every single security patch that has been released has been a pro-active response to a theoretical or proof of concept attack – never as a reaction to an attack that is notoriously in the wild. In fact, some of the most serious threats to OSX in recent times have actually come from third party applications, such as Adobe Flash (the browser plugin), or Acrobat – both of which have received urgent patches in the past month to plug potentially devastating vulnerabilities.

Also, like any OS there is a time delay between vulnerabilities being discovered (new ones are called Zero Day vulnerabilities) and the OS vendor releasing a patch for it. So, even if you do nothing “wrong” you might one day open an innocent looking PDF file, and find you have opened Pandora’s box.

You can still fly an Airbus into a mountain

It doesn’t matter how smart you build an operating system – it’s only going to be as secure as the person using it.

The modern Airbus is perhaps the pinnacle of “safe” aviation technology, but if you put a novice at the helm, or even a professional who doesn’t keep his wits about him, then doom is never too far away. Likewise, if you start installing every bit of shareware, opening PDF files from complete strangers, going to less reputable websites that use Flash (you know the ones!) video, then you are running the risk of falling prey to an exploit.

You are actually the weakest link in the security chain. Socially engineered attacks are being thought up every day whereby scum-bags try to convince you into installing a bit of malware by making you think it’s something innocent. All it takes is a fuzzy head one morning and hey presto, you’ve just given your user privileges to a scum-bag.

So, what do you do, Steve?

There are a number of solutions available from the usual names in the PC security world. However, a fantastic solution that is completely free at the time of writing is Sophos Anti Virus for Mac. It’s lightweight, and just does what it says on the tin – as opposed to Norton and other offerings that, just like their PC counterparts, insinuate themselves all over the place to the point where they can actually become a hindrance to every day use – not very Mac like.

For a long time I didn’t bother with any AV software on my Macs, but things are changing, and complacency is the root of all f**kups! Sophos will be able to release a fingerprint pattern for a new threat long before Apple or Adobe or an application developer will, so it makes sense to have something covering your back before official patches get released for new threats.

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