The end of Mac complacency

The news that the Flashback Trojan has infected an estimated 600,000 Apple Mac computers has been greeted with joy by the dozens of industry experts that have predicted a virus holocaust for smug Mac users for nearly a decade.


Flashback malware – the earlier versions could be described as a computer Trojan Horse, while the later editions are more like a computer worm – is a real risk to Mac users and it’s important to take this risk seriously.

The Netsmarts business site looks at how Mac and Windows users can protect themselves from Flashback and its variants, including updating Java and restricting user privileges.

One of the key things in the advice is to make sure anybody using the computer has limited rights – as a Managed User on the Mac and as a Limited User in Windows. This dramatically reduces the opportunity for bad things to happen while online.

I’ve discussed previously why user privileges are one of the reasons why the Mac has historically been less prone to infection to virus infections than their Windows cousins.

Microsoft made the decision in the 1990s not to tighten Windows’ security settings and their customers paid the price for the next decade. This was compounded by some poor implementations of various technologies in Microsoft Windows.

This isn’t to say the Mac, or any other computer system, doesn’t have security bugs. Every operating system does and it’s a conceit of everybody immersed in new technologies, be it cloud computing back to horse drawn chariots, to believe their products are magically infallible.

Part of the crowing from the security experts and charlatans who’ve been desperately predicting a “Macapocalypse” for nearly a decade overlook this.

Even with the proven problem of the Flashback virus, its unlikely we’re see the deluge of malware like that of the early 2000s simply because the Mac OSX, Windows 7 and all the other mobile and computer operating systems don’t have the structural flaws that Windows ’98, ME and early versions of XP had.

Much of the Mac versus PC argument in security is irrelevant anyway; the main game for scammers and malware writers has moved to social media services like Facebook and this is where computer users need to be very careful.

However, the stereotype of the “Smug Mac” user was true, one caller to my radio show claimed he didn’t have a problem with spam because he had a Mac. Nothing could convince him that email spam wasn’t related to the type of computer you used.

To be fair to Apple, they never made the claim their computers were invulnerable to malware, although they couldn’t help the odd dig at Microsoft. Their users did it for them.

That type of smug Mac user are those who do need a wake up call. For the industry though, it’s business as usual, although some will be feeling a little smug their hysterical predictions of the last decade came true in a small way last week.

When it comes to computer security, being smug and complacent is how your systems get caught out. Don’t assume you’re secure just because of the brand of computer you use.

Paul Wallbank is one of Australia’s leading experts on how industries and societies are changing in this connected, globalised era. When he isn’t explaining technology issues, he helps businesses and community organisations find opportunities in the new economy.


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