Why Is the Mac OS More Secure than Windows?

Opinion: PC users should forget their outrage and come to understand that life isn't fair. The Mac platform is more secure than Windows and will continue to be so.

Certainly, we can all agree that Mac users hate Windows. On the other hand, most Windows users hate the Macintosh and, moreover, Mac users. And those Mac ads.

One thing that really pushes the buttons of Windows users is how Mac users describe the relative security for each platform. What PC users hear in the exchange is that the Mac is invulnerable to attacks.

Of course, this idea is false, and any right-thinking Mac user would admit that any computer can be attacked. Or almost any computer.

"My CPM computer hasnt been attacked once—because its not connected to the Net," joked Ron Hipschman, senior media specialist at San Franciscos Exploratorium science museum. He manages a number of clients and servers of different platforms, including Sun Solaris, Windows and Macintosh.

"Its hard to write a system that cant be exploited, he said. "Leaving it disconnected from the Internet will do it, and sealing the CD drive, floppy and thumb drive [ports] will keep you virus-free."

In one of the hated Apple ads, the sneezing PC guy (the hilarious John Hodgman) comes over to the Mac guy and tells him that he has a virus thats going around. "Dont be a hero," Hodgman warns.

The Mac guy isnt worried. He doesnt get viruses. Well, really he says that hes not going to get one of the Windows viruses, which is perfectly correct.

Still, no matter how much you might consider this comparison an unfair shot, it is real. The Mac is a better platform when it comes to security and malware attacks.

Ive used Macs since 1984, and Ive been infected by some malware twice. Two times.

One was in 1989 on a diskette distributed at a Macworld Expo with a HyperCard stack of naughty drawings (it was infected at the company). And the other was an infection by a cross-platform Office macro virus perhaps 10 years ago. The person sending me the file was a Windows user.

Take a look at the exploits actually seen in the wild on the Wild List. In March, the group recorded 766 different viruses, with a supplemental group bringing the total to 1,709 titles. None are on the Mac.

A search through security vendor F-Secures Virus Description Database for the word "Macintosh" brings up 24 total hits. Most of them are MS Word macro viruses, and five were hoax reports.

/zimages/3/28571.gifSymantec says Mac OS X is running with an outdated and vulnerable version of the open-source file and print program Samba. Click here to read more.

So based on these figures, it would take a lot of attacks to make a dent in the Macs good name and challenge the current record on the PC side.

However, by my reckoning of the installed bases for each platform, there should be many more exploits for the Mac. Depending on how you calculate the number—2, 3, 5 or whatever percent—shouldnt there be that corresponding percentage of viruses on the Mac in these lists?

A side note: Some folks estimate the number of Mac users—ones who actually buy things or read content on the Web—is a greater figure than we would find by looking at pure sales or when looking at the entire PC installed base. Mostly, this means that theres evidence that Mac users are undercounted.

For example, in a previous column I pointed to a chart on Scripting News that listed the sites readers by browser. Firefox was the largest (49.76 percent), and Internet Explorer came in second (23.43 percent). However, Mac-only browsers Safari and Camino were next in line (21.31 and a guesstimate of 2 percent, respectively). And some part of the Firefox figures must have been Mac users as well.

Whatever the number, bigger or smaller, the sum of Mac attacks is statistically nil when compared with the PC market. There just arent many attacks, now or in the past.

Also, its not as if Mac users are hiding off the Web. They are exposed in the same way Windows users are.

Worse, Mac users are very naive when it comes to security. Most dont run any virus software, except for the firewall that comes built into Mac OS X. Most users rely on Apple to update their security, something that happens very often nowadays.

So, whats the reason for this difference in exploits? Why arent there more Mac attacks? And why have researchers been finding more Mac holes?

Next Page: Yes, Macs are more secure.