2/1/2010
07:05 PM
Jake Widman
Jake Widman
Commentary

Mac vs. PC Security Not The Real Question

The argument over whether Macs are more secure than Windows PCs may never be resolved, but it's no longer the relevant issue, according to a survey of security experts.



The argument over whether Macs are more secure than Windows PCs may never be resolved, but it's no longer the relevant issue, according to a survey of security experts.Apple likes to tout the resistance of its computers to viruses and other malware, as compared to Windows PCs, and by the numbers they're right. There have been almost no Mac-attacking viruses and only a few Trojans reported in the wild, and most Mac owners have never encountered one. Compare that to the experience of PC users, whose computers can be brought to a standstill in a matter of hours if left unprotected on the Internet.

Whether that's due to the inherent security of Mac OS X or just the fact that there are so many fewer Macs out there that they make a less attractive and lucrative target has been debated for years. I'm skeptical that the lower number of Macs can account for the whole difference, as I've written before. But a group of security experts surveyed by Elinor Mills at CNet, while they mostly buy the "smaller target" theory, tend to agree that it's no longer an important question. Malware distribution, phishing, and other online attacks are relying more and more on social engineering and related tricks to get their victims to expose their machines or compromise their businesses' security measures, as seen in the recent cyberattacks on Google and other companies. As Sophos' Graham Cluley tells Mills, "I would argue that an Apple Mac user wanting to watch the 'Erin Andrews Peephole Video' is just as likely to download a bogus browser plug-in to help them do that, as a Windows user. And it doesn't matter that Mac OS X will ask them to enter their username and password to install the plug-in -- they want to watch the video, they will enter their username and password."

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So the vulnerability in any business, PC-based or Mac-based, is the user. Frank Heidt of Leviathan Security tells Mills, "Operating systems as such are no longer the primary target of consumer-targeted attacks; applications are..The real risks lie in the consumer's browser choice, and security habits." Heidt specifies consumers, but the same rule applies to businesses.

And that means the real risk for Mac users is complacency. The way to guard against lax users is through firm security policies and education of your staff. As Security Solutions CEO Monte Robertson told InformationWeek SMB last February, "You could say, 'Don't open e-mails; don't download software,' but it needs to be done. People need to know how important the company's data is. Have a security policy that outlines everything from the tools you use to policies you follow -- and that identifies all the layers of security. It takes a lot more than just software to protect users from themselves."

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