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Antivirus and malware for Mac OS X

One of the first questions that a new switcher asks is “do I need an antivirus program on my Mac?” The answer is usually no in most circumstance, but the truth is more grey than that.

Types of malware
First let’s be clear that there are many types of malware on the Internet including the big three: viruses, trojans, and spyware. Each behaves, infects, and spreads differently. Click each of the links to find out more.

As of now there are no viruses that affect Mac OS X. Viruses rely on their ability to self-replicate and Mac OS X makes that almost impossible.

There are a few cases of trojans and spyware that can infect the Mac, however following common sense browsing will prevent them. For example, don’t download software or other files unless you’re sure the source is reliable.

We highly recommend using Mac OS X's Guest Account feature when allowing others to use your machine, especially for temporary use.

IMPORTANT: never enter your admin password if prompted unless you’re absolutely sure why you’re being asked to do so!

Apple also offers a security site and security configuration guides:So when would you consider an antivirus program?
There are a few reasons you may consider running an AV program:
  1. If you’re paranoid about downloading and spreading malware and it will make you rest more easily, install an antivirus program to set your mind at ease.
  2. If you are in a mixed network environment with Windows machines or share files back and forth with Windows users on a regular basis, you might want to consider antivirus software. While it’s almost impossible for the Mac to become infected by malware, you can do your part of being a good network citizen by catching malware before you can pass it on to a Windows user on your network.
  3. If your school or company requires antivirus software to connect to their network.
Running Windows on your Mac? You need an antivirus program for Windows.
We always recommend running antivirus software on Windows, even on your Mac. Microsoft Security Essentials is free and does a great job. It’s important to realize though that getting malware on your Windows partition cannot infect your Mac.

Some considerations
  1. If you decide to install anti-virus software, do some research before installing it and be sure to choose a program that is not reviled by other Mac users. Some of the commercial AV packages are renowned for their ability to bring a healthy Mac to its knees (Thomas Reed).
  2. When choosing anti-virus software, always take the full set of features into account, as well as seeking out community feedback regarding stability and performance. Be sure that you know how to uninstall the software before installing it, in case it causes problems and needs to be removed (Thomas Reed).
  3. Use common sense and recognize that nothing is impervious to failure or exploitation. Your Mac, although it inherits a strong tradition of security thanks to its Unix heritage, is still a piece of software. As such, try to avoid anything shady or questionable and if in doubt, don't do whatever is making you question your activities.
Antivirus software options for Mac
Free options
ClamXav is lightweight and highly recommended by many users here.

Paid options
Paid solutions are available from several vendors including Symantec, Intego, McAfee (enterprise only), Panda, and Avast.

We recommend searching the forums to see what others are saying about specific antivirus software performance or issues.

Firewalls and Network Security

You should always enable the built-in firewall in Mac OS X when you're using a public network. You can find instructions for setting up and configuring the firewall for OS X 10.4, 10.5, and 10.6.

In addition, common sense prevails when it comes to network security. Don't connect to un-trusted networks and never accept data or file sharing requests from people you don't know.

Never underestimate having a strong password that you change often. The Mac's keychain can help with this or a great program like 1Password.

Last Updated: 07.28.2011

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Last edited by vansmith; 02-25-2013 at 08:54 AM. Reason: Updated info
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