Macs See More Adware, Unwanted Apps Than PCs

The latest data from Malwarebytes show the average Mac sees almost twice as many bad apps as Windows systems, but actual malware continues to be scarce.



The average computer running the Mac operating system encountered 11 threats in 2019, nearly twice as many as the average Windows system, representing a quadrupling of threats for Apple systems, according to cybersecurity firm Malwarebytes' annual threat report, published on February 11. 

While malware accounted for more than a quarter (28%) of the threats encountered by Windows systems, that most severe category accounted for less than 1% of the unwanted programs encountered by Mac systems, the company said. Most programs — almost two-thirds on both platforms — were "potentially unwanted programs" (PUPs), applications that are surreptitiously installed or that have questionable features. Adware accounted for the rest of the threats — nearly a third on Macs, but only 7% on Windows.

"The majority of what we detect on the Mac is adware and PUPs — these lower-level threats," says Adam Kujawa, director of Malwarebytes Labs. "The threats themselves are not as dangerous, for sure. But the number has been increasing steadily, which is surprising for us to see."

The increase in potentially unwanted programs and adware on Mac systems is only one trend that the company saw in 2019, the firm stated in its "2020 State of Malware" report

A significant shift documented by the firm is that attackers are focusing more often on businesses, while the attacks on consumers — which account for the majority of attacks — have slightly declined. The number of threats detected by consumers shrank by 2%, compared with an increase of 13% for businesses and organizations, Malwarebytes stated in the report.  

"The volume of consumer detections still far outweighs that of businesses, but this trend has been reversing since 2018, when many threat actors began to shift focus to development of malware families and campaigns aimed at organizations where they could profit from larger payouts," the company stated in the report.

Businesses faced both a surge in adware, with a 13% increase to almost 17 million detections, and an even larger jump (42%) in threats using common network security and penetration-testing tools, which topped 3 million detections.

The popular combination of Emotet and Trickbot, two Trojans, both dramatically affected businesses in the first quarter of 2019. Both often lead to ransomware infections, such as Ryuk. Emotet weighed in at No. 2 and Trickbot at No. 4 on the list of most active threat families targeting businesses.

"There really is this triple threat," Kujawa says. "Emotet infections that lead to Trickbot infections that lead to Ryuk. We are seeing many different variations of that [attack chain] during the year."

In 2019, the services industry, which saw a 155% increase in attacks, became the most attacked economic sector, surpassing the education sector — the most attacked industry in 2018, the company said. Among the top targeted services segments are managed service providers, because their networks are a gateway to compromise an entire client base, Malwarebytes stated.

"[Managed service providers] are becoming increasingly juicier targets for compromise in their own right, as well as for gaining a foothold into larger enterprise networks," the report stated. "Often a victim of their own negligence, MSPs have been attacked through weaknesses introduced via mishandling of administration credentials, failure to update software vulnerabilities, poor asset management, and lack of appropriate log analysis tools."

Attacks are also increasingly utilizing tools commonly used by red teams and penetration testers to check the security of networks. These hacking tools, such as the password collection utility MimiKatz, surged 42% among business detections, Malwarebytes stated.

"Our detections of hacking tools found on endpoint have jumped in the last year," Kujawa says. "These freely available penetration testing tools — which we have developed to help secure use — are being used against us in the attackers' operations."

The company predicts that the proliferation of attack vectors will lead to ransomware becoming even more of a problem for companies in 2020, while attacks on websites that aim to steal user data will only continue to increase as well.

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Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio

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