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Switcher Hangout The place for switchers to discuss their new machines, and how to work with OS X. General support can be had here for newbie stuff, like "How do I restart my new iMac?" :)

avast! On Mac? To install or not to install...


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The-Canuckster

 
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Hello, all! Me again.

Okay, I know that it is EXTREMELY rare for a Mac to get a Virus. But I would imagine it's not impossible. And if it is indeed impossible today, it could be very possible tomorrow. So my question is: [pause for effect] should I install an anti-virus program/app on my Mac (once I get one) or not? And if I do put anti-virus on, will the program do harm to my computer? I read somewhere in the Switcher's Hangout that anti-virus software can do more harm than good. Problem is, I'm not 100% sure of that. I would rather be safe than sorry, as I've somehow managed to crash PCs with viruses.

As a side note, it's nice that Macs provide some of their own security, unlike Windows which needs programs such as avast! to be installed in order to be secure.

Well, I hope I haven't babbled needlessly. Any and all help is appreciated.

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cwa107

 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by The-Canuckster View Post
Hello, all! Me again.

Okay, I know that it is EXTREMELY rare for a Mac to get a Virus. But I would imagine it's not impossible. And if it is indeed impossible today, it could be very possible tomorrow. So my question is: [pause for effect] should I install an anti-virus program/app on my Mac (once I get one) or not? And if I do put anti-virus on, will the program do harm to my computer? I read somewhere in the Switcher's Hangout that anti-virus software can do more harm than good. Problem is, I'm not 100% sure of that. I would rather be safe than sorry, as I've somehow managed to crash PCs with viruses.

As a side note, it's nice that Macs provide some of their own security, unlike Windows which needs programs such as avast! to be installed in order to be secure.
The term "malware" encompasses a category of software that is designed with malicious intent. We often use the specific term 'virus', when we mean to use the more general term 'malware'. To-date there has never been a virus (self replicating program that infects a system with damaging results) for the Mac. That's not to say that there won't ever be one, but clearly, if it were a simple thing to accomplish, it would have happened at some point. Keep in mind that the underlying OS that OS X is based on is BSD, which has been around for decades.

What there are, is a handful of Trojan Horse programs. Trojans are merely pieces of malicious software that are disguised to look like a desirable piece of software. They are nearly always installed by user error - typically by executing a program downloaded from a less than reputable source, or by being tricked into doing so.

Fortunately, there's a few of simple things you can do as a user to avoid the potential to install something undesirable. If you follow the simple rules below, there is little need for an anti-virus product...

1. Only download software from trusted, reputable sources ( If you don't know what it is, why you need it, or trust the source, don't download/install it.)
2. Most software does not need you to enter your admin password in order to install it. If you are prompted during an installation, this should make you extra wary - it means that the software wants to make a modification to a system directory or file. Again, very rarely is this needed, so unless you're installing something particularly complex, from a reputable source (and the install is intentional), hit 'cancel' and abort the install.
3. Keep your Mac up-to-date. Apple has its own rudimentary anti-malware solution built right into OS X. If you're in the habit of regularly checking for and installing system updates, you're probably already protected from the handful of malware products that exist for the Mac.

One more important thing to note... the latest OS X (10.8 / Mountain Lion) has an important feature called Gatekeeper. This feature limits what kind of software can run on your Mac. The default, medium setting is to only allow apps that have been produced by an Apple-verified vendor or from the Mac App Store. This feature alone should virtually eliminate the potential for further malware on the Mac.

You can further refine the settings in System Preferences => Security & Privacy => General tab.

So, with all that in mind, no, I still don't recommend anti-virus on a Mac. But if you are absolutely required to (either by institutional rules or the rules of your workplace), then I would recommend ClamXAV, which is a free, reactive scanner. If you must have something that runs in memory and is an "active" scanner, Intego's VirusBarrier seems to consistently earn the best reviews.

Liquid and computers don't mix. It might seem simple, but we see an incredible amount of people post here about spills. Keep drinks and other liquids away from your expensive electronics!
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The-Canuckster

 
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So you're saying that it is really not necessary AT ALL? That's a nice relief. But.. isn't it still easy to make a dumb mistake and install something bad? I guess it all comes down to common sense and intelligence (or lack thereof..). What about bad links, and accidentally clicking them in ignorance? Same thing as above, I guess. I have mistakenly clicked on bad links before, thus having problems on previous PCs (and on my current one). What if there is a site you want to download from, but it's not on Apple List of Verified Vendors? Would you have to disable the Gatekeeper? Would it be a good idea to? Probably not...

Okay, thank you. That helps a lot.

Sorry for more needless rambling. It's my specialty.

GOD Bless,

J.S.

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The-Canuckster

 
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How do you mean "Apple has it's own rudimentary anti-malware solution built in"? How is it rudimentary? Also, if OS X is based on something that has been around for decades (BSD), why hasn't any hacker been able to build a virus for it? Not that I'm not grateful that they haven't been able to, but it does seem puzzling to me. Thanks again.

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cwa107

 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by The-Canuckster View Post
So you're saying that it is really not necessary AT ALL? That's a nice relief. But.. isn't it still easy to make a dumb mistake and install something bad?
Not if you're cognizant of the fact that you're installing software at a given moment.

We make choices every day, it's usually a good idea to pay attention to those choices. Fortunately any sort of malware will usually require your admin password to install. So, if you routinely unconsciously install software, at the very least, let any prompt for a password catch your attention.

Quote:
I guess it all comes down to common sense and intelligence (or lack thereof..). What about bad links, and accidentally clicking them in ignorance? Same thing as above, I guess. I have mistakenly clicked on bad links before, thus having problems on previous PCs (and on my current one). What if there is a site you want to download from, but it's not on Apple List of Verified Vendors?
Driveby downloads frequently happen with Windows machines because Internet Explorer has a "feature" called ActiveX. In earlier years, it was very easy for an ActiveX script to install malware just by virtue of clicking a link. Since none of the Mac browsers support ActiveX, you are unlikely to encounter a "driveby" download.

Regardless, no amount of anti-virus in the world can protect you from doing something stupid. Have you ever run Windows without anti-virus? Probably not. But I'll bet you still managed to contract some kinds of malware.

Quote:
Would you have to disable the Gatekeeper? Would it be a good idea to? Probably not...
The only time I would disable Gatekeeper is if I needed to run a piece of software and found that it wouldn't run. And I would only do that if I was absolutely certain that it was software I needed to run and I trusted the source of the software.

Quote:
Okay, thank you. That helps a lot.

Sorry for more needless rambling. It's my specialty.

GOD Bless,

J.S.
No worries, that's what we're here for.

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cwa107

 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by The-Canuckster View Post
How do you mean "Apple has it's own rudimentary anti-malware solution built in"? How is it rudimentary?
There is a built in, transparent process that monitors for certain kinds of malware. It has no user interface and is routinely updated as Apple becomes aware of different kinds of malware. Assuming your Mac gets its updates, it will stop known maladies from running should you try to run them.

Quote:
Also, if OS X is based on something that has been around for decades (BSD), why hasn't any hacker been able to build a virus for it? Not that I'm not grateful that they haven't been able to, but it does seem puzzling to me. Thanks again.
This is a user comment on Digg, which I think explains it extremely well, so I'll let it speak for itself:

Quote:
Originally Posted by lead2thehead
I was at DefCon this weekend and there were actually several talks about OS X vulnerabilities. And yes, they are real threats, but media tends to exaggerate them because:

1) Reporters are not engineers and thus, do not fully understand the problem.
2) Their articles get more circulation if they over-hype the problem.

Nobody is saying that OS X is malware-proof. But OSX, BSD, Linux and Unix all have inherent design features which make them more secure than Windows. The biggest and most important is a concept called Discretionary Access Control. Allow me to explain...

Alll *nix-based systems have a user called "root". This is a super user that can control the entire computer. In order to install software, you must first become root. In order to read or change configuration files, you must become root. If you want to modify an executable, add a shared library, modify a device driver, or change anything meaningful, you must first become root. This makes it next to impossible for a regular user to unwittingly install a virus or any piece of malware on his computer because, in order to do so, he would need root permission. This is called "Discretionary Access Control", or DAC for short.

Most Windows users will tell you that this is akin to the "Administrator" account on your PC, but that is not exactly the case. Microsoft has attempted to emulate this technique many times, but always fails miserably in its implementation. On a typical Windows PC, THE DEFAULT USER ACCOUNT has Administrator access! This makes it very easy for users to unwittingly install all kinds of malware on their computer without realizing it. Think about that for a second... why would you ever need to run a word processor or a web browser as a super user? That would mean that Internet Explorer, for example, would have permission to write to your system32 directory! Why would IE ever need to do that? And what person in their right mind would ever allow it to? It's a virus writer's dream come true.

Now let's talk about software vulnerabilities. Try to stay with me here, because this gets complicated. The vast majority of software vulnerabilities (greater than 90%) involve buffer overflow attacks. This is an attack, where by a malicious user takes control of a running program and shoe-horns its own malicious code onto the instruction stack. When this happens, the malicious instructions have the same permissions as the program it just took over. And what permissions would those be?... it depends on which user is executing the program. When you run everything as Administrator, as is the default behavior in Windows, EVERY vulnerability becomes a critical vulnerability and EVERY piece of malware can run as a super user.

Let's back up... I'm sure that by now, the Microsoft crowd is saying "Wait a second! You don't have to run everything as Administrator! You can create regular user accounts and restrict their permissions too." And they would be correct. I have never met anyone who does this on their home PC, but the option is certainly there. But even if you do that, you're still screwed because EVERY SINGLE BACKGROUND SERVICE runs as Administrator. Oh, you forgot about the background services, didn't you? Don't feel bad... Microsoft forgot about them too. Right click on "My Computer", select "Manage", and click "Services" if you want to see I'm talking about. There you can see nearly a hundred services, all running as Administrator! Break any one of them and you have Administrator access to the entire computer. Nice, huh?

But wait, you say, doesn't Mac OS have that same problem? Of course not. Only an idiot would run everything as super user. Mac OS comes from the factory with FORTY different user accounts, one for every background service that it runs. (Most flavors of Linux do this as well.) So if you happen to exploit one of them, you can only do what that small, very restricted user account can do... and it isn't much. In fact, when you buy a computer from Apple, they don't even give you the root password! You only have access to your user account... your own little world. And if you mess it up, you're not going to take down the entire computer. You'll only screw up your own account because you don't have the required permissions to screw up the rest of the OS. So the underlying architecture of Mac OS is inherently more secure.

Keep in mind that this *DARN*-poor excuse for a DAC is one of a thousand flaws with Windows. I could go on for days about the absolutely retarded design decisions made by Microsoft. Remember the outbreak of email viruses about 5 years ago? Know why those were such a big problem? Because some genius at Microsoft said, "Hey! Let's invent a scripting language that allows user to embed executable code into email messages and then execute that code automatically when you open the message!" Brilliant, huh? It's like they put that hole there on purpose so that every script kiddie with a copy of Microsoft Word could write CRIPPLING email viruses that took down servers and cost billions of dollars to fix.

The issue is much more fundamental than people think. People who use the "security through obscurity" line clearly do not comprehend the issue.
Link to the story he/she was commenting on.

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Could not have put it better myself. The only thing I can add to that BRILLIANT post (which ought be a sticky on every Mac board around) is that Mac calls its default account "Administrator" but its not the same as a Windows "Administrator" account.

Next time anyone wonders why I refer to OS X as an inherently superior operating system, I'm sending them a copy of this.
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Beyond malware unwittingly installed by the user, the one way Macs can become in any way susceptible to malicious code is via third-party apps, utilities, and plugins.

Thus - ideally - one should avoid Flash if possible, make sure to keep any security settings on Java as high as possible without preventing it being of use, and be very careful what documents you open in any apps capable of running macros (e.g. Microsoft Office); also, make sure to check regularly that you're up to date with the security patches for all your third-party software as well as OS X.

For my purposes as an engineering undergraduate; Windows is respectable (& generally necessary), Linux is admirable (& often useful), OS X is enjoyable (& requires no further justification, although plenty could be given)!
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Excellent information.... thanks all.

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The-Canuckster

 
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I second pendlewitch. This was incredibly helpful, and actually easy to understand to solve my problem/misunderstanding. Thanks so much to all who answered my question, especially cwa107, and lead2thehead. ♥♥

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While I agree that Macs are generally more secure than PCs, it's wrong to suggest that malware spreads only through the intentional download and installation of software (from shady sources).

I appreciate the spirit of education on display here. I really do. I'm amazed at how helpful everyone is trying to be, but I also think it's dangerous to promote a false sense of security based on outdated security practices. Yes, it's certainly true that you should not download or run/install software that you do not know and trust, but that is not the only way that the malware of today spreads. Even the most security-conscientious user can inadvertently click on a link in their browser and infect their computer with malware. Let me reiterate:

You can become infected by just clicking a link!

This is precisely how the notorious Flashback trojan spread. It exploited a vulnerability in Java, which was included in Mac OS X. This trojan quickly infected 600,000 users within days of it being unleashed. With Flashback, the vector of infection was not a user stupidly downloading and installing malicious software, but rather, by a user simply loading a webpage. The infection happened without the user even noticing a thing.

This is the landscape of malware in the 2010s: malicious software that spreads by loading content in a web browser. In the case of the Flashback trojan, a compromised webpage executed some standard Javascript code, which in turn launched a Java applet to infect the user's computer (Java runs as 'root'). There have been other infection vectors (besides Java), which have been either demonstrated by security researchers or already detected in the wild, infecting users in new and exotic ways. It's been shown that it's possible to spread malicious code by just displaying an image or graphic, or even by simply loading a font. The bad guys are getting ever more clever, and they're finding more and more ways to infect our computers, Macs included.

In the case of the Flashback trojan, the only way to have been immune to the attack is if you'd disabled Javascript in your browser (which nobody does, since that effectively hobbles most websites), or if you'd proactively disabled/uninstalled Java, which the average user wouldn't think, or know how, to do.

Java itself seems to be a huge potential vector for malware infection, so it's fortunate (imo) that Apple decided to leave Java out of their latest OS X (Mountain Lion), by default. But the vulnerability persists because there are still many people using older versions of OS X (Lion, Snow Leopard), which includes Java. The issue also persists because Java continues to be widely used, and even many people on Mountain Lion will need to install Java in order to run legitimate software.

I guess my long-winded point is that simply avoiding suspicious downloads is prudent, but does NOT protect you from malware in this day and age. That said, I do believe Macs are safer than PCs because OS X is built on a more secure architecture (as has already been explained by others here). But "more secure" still doesn't reassure me, so I personally run antivirus software on my Mac, and I recommend others do the same.
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okay this is an interesting read, sorry to jump in with another question, what sort of detrumental effects would running an AV have?
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None, other than using resources on your computer that could be used by other applications.

It's always the first time posters that come up with these "logical" sounding reasonings to convince everyone they should be giving some AV company their hard earned money.

The case presented by hungryghost is the same one that has been presented by the anti-virus enthusiasts since the late 90s. And still there have only been perhaps a half-dozen pieces of malware in the wild that had the capability of infecting OS X (vs the thousands for that other OS) - most of which have required that you give it your master password for it to even install.

Our household now has a combined total of 13 yrs use on our Macs without an AV and zero infections.

Of course, I've never had an infection on any of my personal MS machines and I've been using it since MS-DOS 6. But, I don't run Windows without an AV.

My wife on the other hand... I spent many years having to blow her computer away because even the best AV software wasn't capable of eliminating all the contagion and reinstall Windows because she would have so many infections in her system after 6-9 months no matter how much protection I put on her machine. That is the reason I ultimately switched her over to OS X and she has now gone close to 6 yrs without an infection.

I do check our machines from time to time - for example after the flashback trojan hit - particularly to verify the wife hadn't done anything to screw up her machine.

Every time there is anything in the wild that can affect OS X, it is all over the media. You can't miss it if you keep up with the news at all. I believe there have been 2 or 3 such occurrences in the last 6-7 years. Each time the vulnerability has been patched relatively quickly just by keeping your OS updated and the "fix" for getting rid of said malware has been out even faster.

Bottom line, it's up to you. I prefer not to install that stuff on my Macs - even my wife's.
At first, it was really an experiment on her machine - one that has lasted now for close to 6 yrs.
Not saying it can't happen or it won't happen.
But, if it was as easy to become infected in OS X as all these pro AV folks say it is, my wife's machine would be an unusable mess today. A basic modicum of understanding - and I guarantee you that's all my wife has - has kept her Mac infection free for years.

I do have ClamXav installed on my Macs (not running) and I run a scan maybe once a year.

If you haven't read all of cwa107's responses above, suggest you go back and do so now.

I cannot be held responsible for the things that come out of my mouth.
In the Windows world, most everything folks don't understand is called a virus.
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Quote:
Originally Posted by bobtomay View Post
It's always the first time posters that come up with these "logical" sounding reasonings to convince everyone they should be giving some AV company their hard earned money.
I only posted because I wanted to contribute to this discussion; I feel it's important to clarify how malware today can also spread through drive-by infection, via poisoned webpages (e.g. Flashback), and not just through consciously downloading/installing software. Never did I endorse any AV company or suggest that people spend money on AV protection. Actually, to quite the contrary, I don't see any compelling reason to pay for Mac AV programs since there are good free versions out there (Sophos, Avast, etc.). When I do recommend AV to my friends, I recommend free software.

Quote:
Originally Posted by bobtomay View Post
The case presented by hungryghost is the same one that has been presented by the anti-virus enthusiasts since the late 90s. And still there have only been perhaps a half-dozen pieces of malware in the wild that had the capability of infecting OS X (vs the thousands for that other OS) - most of which have required that you give it your master password for it to even install.
...
Every time there is anything in the wild that can affect OS X, it is all over the media. You can't miss it if you keep up with the news at all. I believe there have been 2 or 3 such occurrences in the last 6-7 years. Each time the vulnerability has been patched relatively quickly just by keeping your OS updated and the "fix" for getting rid of said malware has been out even faster.
Sorry, but that's not accurate. There's much more OS X malware in existence than you claim. Granted, most are rare and the likelihood of running into any one of them--even Flashback--is relatively low, today. But that's not really the point. I run AV software to avoid being caught off-guard when a new threat emerges, which is all but inevitable. Just look at the Flashback example; when this malware reared its head, it took Apple months before they patched the vulnerability. Contrast that to the AV companies who released updates within days.

And, despite your suggestion that I'm just some "anti-virus enthusiast", the truth is that I actually did not use AV software on my Mac until more recently. I am indeed a security-conscious Mac user though, one who works in the software industry and likes to stay up-to-date on this issue. But until more widespread Mac infections started popping up, I felt reasonably comfortable relying on my educated, cautious behavior to avoid the nasty stuff. My confidence in this method of safe browsing changed for sure after Flashback.

You are correct though; most OS X malware so far has required a password, which is why "abstinence-based" prevention works in most cases. Usually, people can stay safe by just refusing to install untrusted software. And compared to Windows, you are also right that the amount of OS X malware pales in comparison. But as I've previously mentioned, that is no longer very reassuring to me.

Quote:
Originally Posted by bobtomay View Post
Not saying it can't happen or it won't happen. But, if it was as easy to become infected in OS X as all these pro AV folks say it is, my wife's machine would be an unusable mess today. A basic modicum of understanding - and I guarantee you that's all my wife has - has kept her Mac infection free for years.
Again, you characterize me as just some "pro AV" advocate. Really though, I'm just someone who understands the risks and have decided theres no good reason for me not to use AV software, especially when it's free. If you decide for yourself that you'd rather not, that's fine; you'll probably still be safe. But these decisions should be informed ones, which is why I've been posting here, to let others know what some of the facts are.

Your wife seems to have done fine without AV software. I'd say that has little to do with her "modicum of understanding" and more to do with luck. People who avoided Flashback did so, not because they knew better, but because they were lucky they didn't visit a compromised website or poisoned webpage.

One last point I'd like to make is that research by Sophos shows that OS X has a comparatively low infection rate of 2.7% (1 in 36 Macs are infected). The surprising finding, though, is that 20% of Macs "harbor" malware designed for Windows (1 in 5 Macs are "carriers"), even if the Mac itself is uninfected. Basically, although a Mac might not be infected, a Mac user could still pass an infection onto their Windows friends. For this reason alone, using Mac AV programs to detect Windows malware, just sounds like a responsible thing to do.
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I agree with bobtomay.
If you want to piece of mind just use ClamXav and run a scan occasionally
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