Technology eReport
Volume 5, Number 2
May 2006

Table of Contents
Past Issues


“There Be Dragons Here” (Even for the Mac Users)

By Jeffrey Allen

 For some time, we Mac people have smugly sat back and watched the Windows world suffer through one virus outbreak after another. We used to make jokes about the vulnerability of the Windows Operating System and, of course, the biggest of all targets, Internet Explorer. I suspect that for many of us those jokes do not seem quite so funny these days as we have learned that the Mac lacks the invulnerability to virus attacks that many attributed to it over the years.

To some of us, the Mac’s vulnerability to virus attacks came as no surprise. I have long felt that the Mac OS and Safari had weaknesses that would enable those who designed computer viruses to knock out a few that would affect the Mac. Some note that we had no problem with this until Apple started to use the Intel chips, and suggest that there is a causal relationship between the conversion to Intel chips and the Mac’s newly discovered vulnerability to virus attacks. There may be a causal relationship, but it is not likely the fact that Apple has shifted towards what some refer to as the “dark side” with the adoption of the Intel chips.

Apple really had little choice about switching over. After several years they could not get a G5 to work in a laptop. Apple really was forced to adopt another chip. Available Intel chips power both desktops and laptops nicely. By making the switch, Apple could upgrade its laptop line, juice up the power and the speed, and continue to hold a competitive position in the market.

Yes, the simple fact of the matter is that the Intel Macs can run Windows too. Moreover, they can do a better job of running Windows than older Macs with emulator programs, such as Virtual PC. That fact has helped remove barriers for those Windows users seriously contemplating a switch to the Mac. The additional power in combination with the style advantage the Mac already possessed has helped make the Mac more popular than ever. From my perspective, the increase in popularity, caused in part by the shift to Intel processors, has served as the impetus for invasion.

Windows security issues, particularly those associated with Internet Explorer, are legendary. I believe that the number of virus attacks on Windows resulted from the security flaws inherent to the system, acted upon by the mass adoption of that software. Simply put, Windows and Internet Explorer offered a major target due, in large part, to the vast number of users. The virus-maker wishing to get the greatest bang for the effort would create a virus for the Windows environment. Why bother to even mess with the Mac world when it was such a small piece of the pie?

As the Mac became more popular and more widely accepted, it became a more viable target for the virus makers. The more people who used the Mac, the more it made sense to make a virus for the Mac.

So, where does that leave us? Microsoft continues to patch holes in its software. Apple has responded to the successful virus attacks by patching its software. For the time being, Apple’s Macintosh OS and Safari remain safer from viral invasion than Windows and Internet Explorer. Microsoft has a new operating system on the horizon (although it keeps moving its anticipated release date back). Apple will also have a new iteration of its system in the not too distant future. Hopefully both systems and the associated browsers will provide better security than the current versions.

For those of you who have shifted to other browsers, such as Firefox or Mozilla, rest assured that they probably have their vulnerabilities as well. It just takes someone with the interest to exploit them.

In the mean time, you should take some actions to protect yourself and your computer. Going unprotected on the Internet begs for infection. It compares to having unprotected sex with the next several thousand people you see. Practice safe browsing online, just as you would practice safe sex.

As with sex, the most complete protection comes from abstinence. Just like sex, however, most of us would be loath to give up our Internet access, email, and so forth. You might, however, consider disconnecting your computer from the Internet when you have no need for the connection. That means losing the convenience of automatically checking email, so you will want to weigh the trade-offs.

No matter what you decide about leaving the computer connected all the time or only when you use the Internet, you still need protection. The first thing you need to do is get and install a good antivirus program. Because most people consider the Mac safer than Windows, most antivirus programs protect Windows, not the Mac. Antivirus software makers have focused on Windows, just as did the virus makers. Although that may change in the near future, the leaders of the limited universe of Mac antivirus systems are Intego and Symantec (Norton).

After you have installed antivirus software, remember to regularly check for upgrades to virus definitions. The software can check for you automatically. It normally does that as a part of the boot-up sequence. Because many of us leave our computers on 24-7, the computer does not run that sequence very often. Accordingly, you must either set the program to check for updates on a regular basis (no less than weekly) or you must do that yourself on a manual basis.

Set the program so that it checks out all things that come onto the computer, by download or from email attachments. You might consider including an automatic search of files transferred from other media sources (CDs, DVDs, or other hard disks). That can be somewhat time consuming, and it is a bit of a hassle to wait sometimes. As a result, you might want to make that choice manually, skipping the process for media that has remained under your control and that you know will not infest your computer with malware.

As an extra precaution, you should run a virus scan over your entire disk when you first install the program and every so often afterward (once a month at least, better yet, once a week).

Even though you use antivirus software, you still need to take further precautions. For a variety of reasons, you need to have and use a viable back-up plan. The possible infestation of your system by a virus offers just one of the problems that can bring your system down. By regularly and properly backing up your system, you reduce the risk that you will suffer significant hardship due to a virus attack.

You can find many programs to assist you in backing up your software. Retrospect and Bounce Back Professional (CMS Products) are two of the best known. Synchronize! Pro X also has worked quite well. Ideally you will use a program that backs up (clones) your entire hard disk in the initial use and thereafter updates the backup by synchronizing it to the hard disk in your computer. Be sure to check your backup to ensure that it works. It should be able to replace the entire disk or a single file or group of files. In creating your backup plan, remember to make multiple backups and to rotate the backup media. That way you protect against the problem of backing up the virus. If some of the media in your rotation have the virus, you can simply use one that does not. If that happens to be a day or two behind, you may be able to safely update the files from one of the more recent, but contaminated, backups by using your antivirus software to clean the virus off. This solution works if you use hard disks for back up. If you back up to other media, you will first have to restore to a hard disk (preferably an external hard disk) and then clean the virus off.

When surfing the net, remember to always practice safe browsing. Remember, “There be dragons here!”




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