I’m Completely Safe On a Mac Or Linux


Well, you might be safer on a Mac or Linux machine than on an unpatched Windows machine. But just getting a Mac and never taking safety measures, and then clicking on every link that comes into your email and giving your install password to every process that requests it isn’t any safer than running any other Windows machine.

Remember Willie Sutton’s remark when asked why he robbed banks? “Because that’s where the money is.” Until lately, Windows has been where the money is, almost exclusively. Primarily for that reason, the virus writers have been targeting Windows machines. There are a few things, like a completely different file structure and the absence of a registry, that make the BSD/*nix platform more difficult to do a drive-by install to, but remember the phrase “more difficult” is not synonymous with “impossible.”

Most of the bad stuff getting on computers is not sneaking in on its own. It’s coming in with other stuff or users are inviting it in. Simply paying attention to what you’re doing makes a huge difference in whether or not you ever get an infection.

There is a reason that Microsoft issues security patches. Guess what—Apple issues security patches too. And so do the Linux developers. Think about this—safety and security are always reactive. You don’t put locks on your doors unless you feel there’s a reason to believe you need them. Why on earth would you need them? Because someone has gotten into homes uninvited. Your physical security measures always follow some perceived threat, and so do your digital security measures. The same holds true for the developers of security products. They can’t develop a security product for what some group of bad guys might do sometime in the future; if they tried that, your computer would perform so badly you’d never want to use it. But they do a great job of developing and updating their products in response to a known and/or discovered threat. Within days, and often within hours, of a threat being discovered, the security software vendors are working on a remedy. And within days of a remedy made available, the bad guys are already unpacking it and looking for the next way around it. (By the way, there are websites where exploits are bought and sold, like books and clothes and furniture.)

As good a job as security software developers do with their product, if you never apply it, it will do you no good. You must keep your systems updated regularly with the latest updates and patches. Your system, regardless of whether it’s Windows, Mac, or Linux, is only as secure as its last updates. That means if you don’t have your computer set to install updates automatically (and I don’t, because invariably it will require a reboot when I’m in the middle of something), at least set it to alert you when updates are available. And run them. Don’t think your computer will protect itself, it cannot. Pick some time when you can go through and run all the operating system updates. Run them until there are no more to run.  Then check for your web browser software for updates.  Then check all your other installed software for updates. This is a project to which you should be prepared to devote an hour to every month or so, if you don’t do it more regularly than that. If you do it every week, it’s a few minutes a week.

Watch out, also, for “extras.” Sometimes when you do want something, there’s something else hitching a ride. Pay attention to the installation process, and if there’s something on your screen with a checkbox already checked, READ THE DOGGONE TEXT TO FIND OUT WHAT YOU ARE AGREEING TO! Lots of folks have been fooled into downloading something because they didn’t uncheck one box while installing something else. That’s how a certain coupon printer keeps getting installed on corporate machines—it’s coming in with other stuff.

I do believe that Microsoft could implement one simple thing that is done by Mac and Linux that could provide a lot more security, and I can’t understand why they haven’t: Force a password for all installations. Windows users are so used to just clicking OK to be able to move on, they don’t know what they’re OK’ing. If they had to type the password, most of the drive-by installations would stop, because the users would say, “Wait, what am I installing? I didn’t start an installation. CANCEL!”

Security experts say that drive-by installs are no longer the most common avenue for infection. Now what’s happening most often is that people are clicking links and going to sites and grabbing something malicious. Very often it doesn’t need to “install” to do its damage. It can sit resident in memory and do its dirty deeds. So use a little caution when you get an email or when you see something on Facebook; if it looks too good to be true, it will be too good to be true.  Be alert for hooks like “FREE STUFF” and “BIG MONEY.”

As Macs are rising in prominence (partly due to frustration over Windows infections), reports of Mac infections are rising, though not in direct proportion. So far, the bad guys are still behind the curve a bit, but then, the rise of Mac isn’t exactly stellar in scope either; it’s a slow progression, so the money is still in Windows. There are also reports of Linux infections, but most of those are proof-of-concept bugs, because by the time there are enough Linux users to bother writing malware for it, the users will be better educated about how to prevent infection. That’s usually part of the discussion around using this new Linux machine—DON’T GO CLICKY-CLICKY ON EVERY UNDERLINED OR HIGHLIGHTED LINK!!!!!

I am not Superwoman, and my computers are not super-protected. But somehow, I have never had an infection on any of my Windows machines. My husband hasn’t either, and I know his machine is seriously behind on updates. My older son has not. My younger son—well, that’s a different story. Regardless of how much protection I put on his machine, I have stuff to clean off of it every so often. But when you look at the different personalities among us, I can see why. My younger son, being younger, is more gullible and apt to believe every claim he reads. The rest of us pretty much don’t believe any marketing, much less the “too-good-to-be-true” claims that hook a lot of people in. The most-used key on my keyboard is “delete.”

You CAN be safer on a Mac than on Windows for certain vulnerabilities. But with the rise of non-installed exploits, just having a glowing piece of fruit not the lid no longer says, “I’m safer than you are.”

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