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We won't mince our words: contrary to popular opinion, Macs can and do get viruses. No operating system, be it Windows, MacOS, or Linux, is immune to malicious code – and there are plenty of viruses out there that are built to target Mac users.
However, whether Macs are less likely to get viruses is a different question entirely. Historically, at least, the evidence suggests that they're less inclined to be infected than Windows devices.
In this guide, we bust the myth that Macs don't get viruses; reveal why viruses are made for Windows more regularly than for macOS; and show you how you can protect yourself from threat factors with using Surfshark's antivirus software, to ensure that you're not overly reliant on your device's built-in defenses.
Can Macs Get Viruses?
Let's start off by debunking the myth that it is impossible for Macs to get infected with viruses – purported information that was widespread through a series of Apple's ads from 2006. Below are three facts that we'll be explaining in more detail in this article:
- Macs can–and regularly do–get viruses
- Macs tend to get fewer viruses than Windows PCs
- Macs lead the industry when it comes to device security
macOS does not have some sort of secret software recipe that makes it impervious to viruses and malicious files. Here are some examples of malware developed specifically for macOS in the past year:
|UpdateAgent: This Mac malware has been in circulation since November 2020 and used to be a rudimentary information-stealing program, but recent reports have suggested that malicious actors have upgraded it so it drops an adware payload that creates a backdoor on whatever network it infects.|
|XMRig: This is the name for a type of crypto-mining software attached to bootleg copies of the video-editing app Final Cut Pro. XMRig is actually a genuine utility, but it can be used maliciously on suspecting users' Macs to mine crypto, which will affect device performance.|
|Lazarus: Disguised as job offers on Crypto.com, hacking group Lazarus dropped some multi-stage macOS malware in October 2022.|
|CrateDepression and Pymafka: Both of these macOS malware variants appeared last year, and effectively use a similar typosquatting technique to trick users into downloading malicious files that are similarly named to genuine ones.|
What types of malware can Macs get?
Unfortunately, if you're a macOS user, you're susceptible to the same sorts of cyberattacks, through the same sorts of attack vectors as Windows users. These include:
|Adware: Dodgy third-party apps can lead to adware being installed on your Mac – this is a popular attack vector for Mac hackers. Adware will display suspicious-looking adverts all over your screen and make your device a pain to use.|
|Trojans: The macOS GateKeeper tool uses XProtect to scan downloaded apps for malware, which makes the whole system more secure – but that doesn't mean Mac Trojans don't exist and don't work.|
|Computer Viruses: Just like Windows computers and laptops, macOS can be infected with traditional computer viruses. These can be used to steal, encrypt, or delete information, snoop on the device owners, and even extract money from accounts.|
|Spyware: Often used by governments to spy on unsuspecting citizens or criminal targets, spyware can be installed on macOS products.|
Protect your Mac today: Download an anti-malware program and stay safe from viruses and other cyber threats.
Signs Your Mac may Have a Virus
Knowing the telltale signs that your Mac may have a virus will help you to remove it from your system as quickly as possible and minimize the potential damage it can cause. Some key signs your Mac may have a virus include:
- A significant drop-off in performance and speed
- The presence of adware on your desktop or browser
- The presence of files or browser extensions you don't remember downloading
- Your contacts reporting unusual correspondence coming from your accounts
- Your malware scanner has detected suspicious activity within your OS
Why Do Macs Get Fewer Viruses?
Perhaps the most interesting question we'll answer today is why Macs get fewer viruses. Here are four key reasons why Macs don't get as many viruses as Windows devices, which has led to it generally being considered a more secure operating system:
Safety in (a lack of) numbers
Imagine you are a hacker – or some other sort of threat actor – and you want to create some malicious code that will let you infiltrate the devices and networks of unsuspecting users.
Because you have limited time, money, and resources, and you want your malware to have the biggest impact possible, then it makes logical sense to create code for the most popular operating system in the world.
This is, of course, Windows by a country mile. Just under three-quarters (74%) of all desktops and laptops across the globe run some version of Windows, while just 15.33% run macOS.
So, it's always going to make sense for cybercriminals to choose Windows over Mac, simply for impact – unless the macOS market share continues to increase (Source: Statista):
This discrepancy has helped to fuel the idea that Macs don't get viruses, when in fact what's really happening is that less malware gets made with macOS users in mind (at least when compared with Windows). One recent study found that 5000 times as many new malware scripts were made in 2022 for Windows than for macOS.
The sheer volume of malware being created for Windows PCs is certainly the most significant factor in why Macs seem to get fewer viruses than windows in the modern era. Here are three other reasons why Mac hasn't quite got the reputation Windows does for being vulnerable to viruses.
Historical Windows OS infrastructure loophole
Windows was traditionally a single-user operating system and, historically, most Windows users have used administrator accounts. macOS and other operating systems, such as Linux, have always had “multi-user systems”. With multi-user systems, it's standard procedure to log in with different user accounts, depending on who's at the wheel – not all accounts are admin accounts.
Before the early 2000s, typical Windows users would have had admin privileges and very few security restrictions, so infecting a Windows desktop would, in theory, let you wreak more havoc in less time, and with greater ease than on a multi-user system, where many important settings aren't directly accessible.
macOS is built on UNIX, which is open-source software that also provides the foundation for Linux. As with most open-source software, fixing bugs and vulnerabilities is a global, team effort that anyone interested in improving the software can get involved with. Conversely, Windows relies solely on Microsoft's security infrastructure to better itself.
Although Windows has been a multi-user operating system since Windows XP, it certainly made it a more appealing operating system to write malware for while the internet was in its relative infancy.
Apple's excellent security infrastructure
Another reason why Apple products tend to be pretty robust in their defense against malware and other viruses is the security stack Apple provides for users.
- Quarantine: An alert system that warns users when they open applications, files, and documents downloaded, which serves as a reminder to be cautious with what you're allowing onto your computer from the internet.
- GateKeeper: A tool that effectively vets any app that you download from the App store to check if it's agreed to Apple's terms and conditions. However, if you're a hacker willing to pay a small fee to make your apps publishable on the app store, then this won't necessarily help.
- Malware Removal: Your Mac will flush malware out of its own system, but this is a mitigative measure that only occurs post-infection. So it could end up being a little too late, depending on what havoc has already been wreaked on your device.
- XProtect: This has been a security feature of Apple products for almost 15 years, and effectively reads files and documents that could contain malware and stops them from opening themselves if it spots code it recognizes as malicious. However, for it to be effective, the database it uses to cross-reference the code it's checking has to be up-to-date.
It's good to know, however, that ChromeOS is more secure than both macOS and Windows. It uses a sandboxing technique to isolate all processes that take place on Chromebooks and this greatly limits the scope of any given attack that's underway.
What's more, Chrome is a read-only OS (everything is saved to the cloud rather than the local device), which makes it “inhospitable” for bad actors, Google says. But again, this of course does not mean it's impossible to get a virus on your Chromebook.
Apple's software/hardware monopoly
Although there are ways to run macOS on PCs and other devices, the vast majority of people using macOS will also be using Apple hardware. PCs that run Windows, however, are manufactured by a vast array of different companies (e.g. HP, Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo, ASUS, Samsung, and Acer).
This overarching management of every aspect of the system – both physical and digital – allows Apple to have deeper and more meaningful control when it comes to overall device and system security. But, you'll still need antivirus software for Mac to fill in the gaps, as you do with all your devices. Apple's defensive perimeter won't always help you if you click on a dodgy link to sufficiently sophisticated malware.
Mac Malware: a Growing Threat
Macs do get fewer viruses, but that might not be the case for too much longer. We've already mentioned several families of malware that have been released in the last few months to affect macOS users, and the threat of such malware is an ever-growing issue for users in 2023.
A couple of years back, cybersecurity firm, Malwarebytes, revealed in a study that throughout 2019 “the average number of threats detected on a Mac [was] not only on the rise, but [had] surpassed Windows—by a great deal”. The researchers put it down to Mac's increased market share that year, and the results definitively put to bed the myth that you don't need antivirus software for Mac.
But in fact, AV-ATLAS, a threat intelligence platform, released newer data for malware threats in 2022. It found that there were 69,504,686 new samples for Windows, but only 12,445 new samples for macOS – which suggest things are back to relative normality when it comes to the operating systems that hackers are targeting.
Protecting Yourself from Malware: Tips and Tricks
There are a couple of things you can do to give yourself the upper hand against hackers trying to breach your device or network.
The first, of course, is to ensure you have best-in-class antivirus software that can protect your devices from a range of contemporary threats, including ransomware, as well as flush out any existing malware that has made its way onto your devices. If that sounds like it'll be out of your price range, a lightweight provider like Surfshark One will be a better fit and still scan everything you download for suspicious code.
However, it's equally as important to follow basic endpoint safety tenets, such as never clicking on links contained within suspicious-looking emails. This is one of the key ways malware makes its way onto unsuspecting users' devices. You can train yourself and your staff to better recognize the telltale signs of a phishing attack or online scam.
Ensuring all of your software is up to date is essential. Security updates are rolled out all the time, and if you don't install them, you're leaving yourself vulnerable.
Importantly, you can't divert all of your time and resources into ensuring that malware never infects your computer systems – you also have to have a plan to minimize its impact if it does find its way through your defenses.
This is why you have to enforce appropriate cybersecurity principles within your business, such as the Principle of Least Privilege (that employees should only have access to the minimum amount of company data they need to do their jobs, and no more).
If a company network doesn't enforce this principle (or similar), and it becomes infected with malware via a junior staff member's device, then all of your company's sensitive data will be accessible to the threat actor. If such data is siloed up and much of it is hidden behind additional security barriers that most company employees can't even access, attacks won't be as devastating.
Here's a full list of things you can do to protect yourself from malware:
- Download modern, reputable antivirus software
- Purchase a VPN with a suspicious website warning system, like Surfshark
- Install a network firewall, and ensure it is properly configured
- Train yourself and your staff to recognize suspicious correspondence
- Never click on links in emails/texts from accounts/numbers you don't recognize
- Enforce important cybersecurity principles across your business
- Ensure employees are using strong, unique passwords on all accounts
- Make sure all of your devices are running up-to-date software
The Mac Virus Debate: an IT Expert Weighs In
Hopefully, by now, you've realized Macs can – and often do – get infected with dangerous computer viruses that are designed to disrupt systems and steal information.
But what does an IT professional that works with Mac and Windows devices every single day have to say about this Mac-based myth?
“Macs can be exposed in various ways. The way Windows devices are exploited, exactly the same can happen with Macs.” – Wayne Fernandes, IT support engineer.
Just like Windows devices, Macs often get viruses “if someone installs a dodgy app” or “goes to a dodgy website,” Fernandes explained. In a nutshell, there's nothing special or magical about macOS when it comes to shielding users from viruses.
In terms of purchasing a secure laptop, Fernandes says, “The bigger the brand (e.g. Dell), the better the support they have on their devices.”
“They release new updates for their devices' security etc (e.g. if there is a known threat to their devices). They have their own in-house software which reminds you to keep you updated, can run automatic scans, etc,” he told Tech.co.
Fernandes also recommended BitDefender antivirus, noting that it has “lots of customizations and features”. Find out how BitDefender compares with other antivirus software for business.
Remember: Macs are Prone to Viruses too!
However, there is a solid argument to be made that Macs are less likely to get viruses than devices running Windows. This is simply because of the difference in market share and the fact macOS is more often than not run on Apple hardware, unlike Windows.
With all of this in mind, it's important to get your hands on a top antivirus software program to give your device an extra line of defense, whether you're using a Mac, Windows, Linux, or OS. With the threat of malware ever present, it really is a no-brainer.