Apple Mac users will tell you their computers are more secure than Windows PCs.
They have a point. Malware writers go for big, easy targets. Windows is a big, easy target. OS X remains small by comparison.
Macs have a second advantage. OS X is based on Unix, which has baked-in security.
Apple added its own layer of security on top of the Unix core. Gatekeeper automatically blocks any software that hasn’t been approved by Apple from running on your computer unless you give specific permission. In practice it often acts as a reminder to not do dumb things.
Then there is XProtect. This scans downloads for malware and watches OS X apps like Safari and Mail automatically sending dodgy-looking files to quarantine.
Despite Gatekeeper and XProtect, vulnerabilities remain. Even so, if you are knowledgeable, vigilant, obsessive about updates and keep a close watch on everything going in and out of your Mac, you should stay safe.
Few of us can tick all those boxes. And even those of us who can are not always on the ball. Vigilance takes an effort. We turn to computers to lessen the burden and can get lazy.
Moreover, you may have loved ones or work with colleagues and employees who just aren’t as good at this.
When I first drafted this post a week ago I was about to write: It’s debatable whether Mac users need to spend money on malware protection.
Then something happened. A Trend Micro Internet Security for Mac 2015 auto scan found three instances of a Trojan downloader.
There was no need to panic. Trend Micro Internet Security packed the malware files off to a quarantine folder.
It wasn’t much of a security breach. The files were in emails that Apple’s Mail App had already decided were spam.So they were already safely tucked away in a junk folder where they were unlikely to be opened.
And even if they were opened, the Trojan is designed for Windows, which means it couldn’t do much harm to my Mac unless I booted the Windows partition and poked around in the darkest recesses of the OS X directory.
It was a wake-up call. Malware can slip through the net on any computer. When it does, the consequences can be dire.
Trend Micro Internet Security for Mac 2015 has run on my MacBook for three months. In that time it only picked up three suspicious files. You might see that as an argument against paying NZ$80 to protect three computers for 12 months.
No-one with any sense is going to tell you that Macs are completely safe from malware. Trojans are the biggest threat, but in 2014–2015 there’s more to computer security than trojans and viruses.
Malware is the least of your problems. Trend Micro latest all-in-one security software warns you about dodgy URLs, protects you from phishing sites and monitors spam — all three are ways users can be trapped into risky behaviour.
Trend Micro Internet Security for Mac does a fine job blocking malicious URLs. You’d be surprised at how many risky links there are on respectable sites. In the past three months I’ve seen warnings about links on both the NZ Herald and Stuff websites. If anything Trend is over-cautious.
Social media privacy
The social media privacy checking tools are less impressive. Trend has options to check your status on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and Linkedin.
At the time of writing the Twitter check is down with a message telling users it is being improved. The software can’t connect to Facebook to check privacy there either. I rang Trend Micro support to learn that feature is also being updated.
I got a clean bill of health for my Google Plus and Linkedin privacy.
Parents can block access to certain types of website so their little darlings don’t wander into the less safe areas online.
On the whole this seems to work, but I ran into a curious problem. You can choose to block sites promoting alcohol and tobacco. It works OK even blocking pubs and bars yet I noticed it would also block some cafe sites even when they don’t sell booze. Presumably because there are keywords on the home pages that trigger a red flag.
Money isn’t the only cost of running security software. Almost every package I’ve ever seen imposes a performance overhead on a computer. I once ran a Symantec application on a Windows PC which dropped the headline performance benchmark by almost 20 percent.
Trend Micro Internet Security for Mac 2015 has an interesting effect on my mid–2013 MacBook Air. It drops the single-core performance benchmark by almost 15 percent. However, the dual-core performance drops only a couple of points. Clearly it uses multi-core systems efficiently.
Overall there’s still the question of whether any security software is necessary on a MacBook. It doesn’t seem to make much difference to the way I use my computer. On the other hand, there is a small performance hit.
I prefer to use Trend Micro’s free HouseCall virus scan which does a quick check without the overhead. It rips through the check in about five seconds.
On the other hand, less experienced users clearly need the extra level of protection you get with Trend Micro Internet Security for Mac 2015. The steps you need to take care are not immediately obvious to everyone and others are just careless.
Malware has permanently locked one of my relatives — not living with me — out of their PC. If that person had Trend Micro Internet Security installed they’d probably still be able to use their computer.
There are no easy answers. If you worry about keeping safe online, buy security software. If you share your computer with children or give computers to employees, buy security software. If you’re knowledgeable, vigilant and happy to wear the consequences should something nasty happen, spend the money on something else.