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McAfee warns over Apple virus risk

Reasons to be fearful, part II

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Anti-virus software firm McAfee has identified Mac OS X as a growing target for malware attacks.

According to McAfee Avert Labs, Mac platform vulnerabilities increased by 228 per cent in the past three years alone, from 45 found in 2003 to 143 in 2005. McAfee didn't say how many of these bugs were critical, preferring to let the numbers speak for themselves.

Microsoft's products saw a 73 per cent increase in security bug discovery over the same three years. While admitting that Windows remains the principal target for hackers, McAfee argues that its findings are enough reason for Mac fans to get protection.

"Many believe that using an Apple operating system is a form of security in itself, believing that they are far less susceptible to malware than Windows users," McAfee senior veep Stuart McClure said. "And while the threats targeting the Mac operating system are low in volume, the use of Apple products does not provide an invisibility cloak from malware, and users need to be more vigilant about security as adoption rates soar and attacks on Apple operating systems increase."

Apple's success with consumer products may entice hackers to target Mac OS and other Apple products, such as iTunes and iPods, according to McAfee. It argues that Apple's recent shift to using Intel microprocessors in new Macs "only raises Apple's profile further and increases its customers' exposure".

By the same logic, Linux fans running the OS on Intel-based PCs should have become the subject of sustained hacker assault - except they haven't.

McAfee announced protection for Intel-based Apple computers last Thursday, the same day it published its white paper illuminating Mac OS X hacker risks, entitled The New Apple of Malware's Eye: Is Mac OS X the Next Windows?.

We mention this not to disparage McAfee's security researchers but to point out the security firm has a clear commercial interest in validating the need for its software. In fairness, McAfee makes some important caveats. For one thing it states that Apple only "appears to be in the earlier stages of malware evolution" and doesn't exaggerate the impact of recently discovered proof-of-concept viruses such as Mac OS X Leap.

However, it goes on to say: "Although the number of OS X-targeted viruses has been relatively low in total volume since January 2004, McAfee Avert Labs predicts that the growing number of Macintosh vulnerabilities will attract more and more talented hackers over the course of the next year and beyond".

It doesn't detail any evidence for this piece of crystal-ball glazing. McAfee is also on shaky ground when it says the availability of exploit code on the internet will make the Mac an "open target for malware".

McAfee's white paper can be enjoyed in full here (PDF). Its Mac security product announcement can be found (here).

Readers are invited to make up their own minds over whether McAfee, like Symantec before, are correct to warn that the hacker risk against Mac OS X systems is really on the rise. ®

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