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Is There a Virus Threat for Macs?

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained a question about security software for Macs.

If you have a question, send it to me at mossberg@wsj.com, and I may select it to be answered here in Mossberg’s Mailbox.

There’s been a lot of press lately about increased virus activity on the Macintosh platform. Should Mac owners now be running the same kinds of security software that Windows owners use?

There is no sudden security crisis on the Apple Macintosh platform. In fact, for average Mac users, there isn’t a security threat of any significance, at least not yet. It is laughable to compare the real, massive and burdensome security problems on Windows with the largely theoretical security problem on the Mac.

As I have said in the past, no operating system is invulnerable to attack, including Apple’s Mac OS X operating system, which powers Macintosh computers. It is possible to write malicious software for the Mac, including viruses and spyware, and it is possible for this software to spread in the wild, infecting many Macs.

However, despite what you may have heard, this hasn’t happened to any degree that matters, yet. As of today, there have been exactly two documented, successful pieces of malicious software — viruses, trojan horses, worms — that affected users of the Mac OS X operating system, since it was released in 2001. And these two failed to spread much, affecting probably a few dozen people, and doing no harm. I expect there to be a small number of additional Mac viruses this year.

By contrast, there are over 100,000 reported viruses for Windows, some of which have affected millions of people and have done significant economic damage. As for spyware, I know of no documented cases on Mac OS X, while there are certainly thousands on Windows. These Windows viruses and spyware can’t run on the Mac operating system, even on Macs powered by the same Intel processors used by Windows PCs.

The recent publicity concerns theoretical vulnerabilities that security firms have identified in Apple’s operating system. These vulnerabilities, like similar vulnerabilities in Windows, aren’t necessarily being exploited. Like Microsoft, Apple fixes vulnerabilities as they are identified. But some critics say Apple does this too slowly.

Security firms are saying that the discovery of these vulnerabilities in the Mac has increased sharply lately. They say that based on past patterns, this should yield a sharp increase in the number of Mac viruses in coming years. But even a “sharp” increase could well mean under 50 viruses by 2008.

So my advice to Mac users is that at the moment, I see no reason to buy and run security software, which is in itself costly and can degrade your computing experience. But you should make up your own mind, based on your tolerance for risk.

Here’s a test you can use. Imagine you live in a neighborhood that has suffered only a couple of ambiguous, harmless burglaries over five years, even though the neighborhood is surrounded by much higher-crime areas. If you would buy a burglar alarm in such a neighborhood, then buy Mac security software. Otherwise, don’t. Just turn on Apple’s built-in firewall and relax.

There is one exception: If you are running Windows on one of the new Intel Macs, you are just like a Windows user, and you must run Windows security programs when using Windows.

* * *

Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com


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