Do I Need an Anti-Virus Program for My Mac?

Being Security-Conscious May Be the Best Defense

Macbook Pro on a table
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Question: Do I need an anti-virus program for my Mac?

I’ve read that Macs are immune to viruses and other nasty things that are common in the Windows world, but my Windows-using friends say I should run an anti-virus program on my Mac. Are they right, or can I get along without one?

Answer:

The Mac isn't immune to viruses, Trojans, backdoors, adware, spyware, ransomware, and other nefarious applications.

The main difference between Macs and Windows is that no successful viruses written for OS X have shown up in the wild, that is, outside of a security research organization. That's not to say it's impossible to create a virus that could bring down a Mac; it's just more difficult than with Windows, because of the nature of OS X and its security model.

The trap that many Mac users fall into is believing that because there are currently no known viruses targeting the Mac, it's safe from attack. In reality, the Mac OS, its included applications, and third-party applications have and will continue to have security issues that can allow some form of attack; it's just that the attack isn't likely to be from a virus. But if something erases your data, gains access to your personal information, blocks the use of your Mac holding it ransom, or manipulates web pages to generate ad revenue, you're not likely to care whether it was a virus, an attack launched through a web site, or a Trojan horse you allowed to be installed; however it happened, your Mac is still infected with a nasty bit of malware or adware.

Using Anti-Virus Apps on Your Mac

Which brings us back to your original question, about using an anti-virus program on your Mac. The answer is maybe; it really depends on how and where you're using your Mac. Let's start with why you should use an anti-virus program.

I'm using the generic term anti-virus to cover a wide range of malware that could be targeting to your Mac.

Actually a virus may be the least of your concerns, but the name anti-virus as been the term most often used to describe these anti-malware applications.

Anti-virus programs don't just provide protection against known viruses; they also include anti-phishing, anti-adware, anti-spyware, anti-ransomeware and other tools that can keep your Mac from picking up debris as you browse the web, open email attachments, or download apps, extensions, and other items that could be bearers of malware.

Are you thinking now that using a Mac security app sounds like a good idea? The downside is that many of the Mac security apps available are historically poor performers. They may be nothing more than badly ported Windows security apps that have a long list of Windows-based malware they can protect you from, but little, if any, Mac malware in their databases.

There's also the issue of a performance penalty, especially with security apps that run in the background, and consume a great deal of your Mac's resources to operate.

However, there are a couple of good reasons to make use of the security apps with a Windows bent to them. They can help protect your Windows-using colleagues in an office or home environment that uses mixed computing platforms.

This is especially important if you share files and emails with others on a network.

Even though it's unlikely that a virus or other malware will successfully attack your Mac, there's a good chance you'll unwittingly forward a malware-laden email or Excel spreadsheet to Windows-using colleagues who may not have anti-virus software on their computers. It's better to be prepared for an attack than to try to clean up after one. (It's also wise not to alienate your colleagues.)

Why You May Not Need to Use Anti-Virus Apps on Your Mac

I’ve been asked if I use any Mac security apps, and while I can tell you that I have tested many such applications, I don’t use any that have an active component to them; that is, they don’t run in the background and scan my every move to see if I'm being infected by something.

I have on occasion used apps such as EtreCheck, which is mainly a diagnostic tool for figuring out what's causing a Mac to behave strangely. It has no ability to remove malware or adware, but it can help you discover if any are present.

The other app I've used is AdwareMedic, which was recently purchased by Malwarebytes, and is now known as Malwarebytes Anti-Malware for Mac. AdwareMedic is currently the only anti-malware app I recommend for the Mac. It focuses on malware by scanning your Mac for the signature files left behind by malware installations. AdwareMedic has no active component, that is, it doesn't scan your Mac in the background. Instead, you run the app any time you think you may have a malware issue.

So, why do I recommend a passive anti-malware app, and not an active malware detection system? Because for the time being, adware is the most likely type of malware you’re going to come across. Using active scanning malware apps just don’t make sense to me, even more so when you take into account the performance penalty they impose, as well as the poor history of how these security apps interact with the Mac, causing stability issues or preventing some apps from working correctly

Be Security Conscious

Being security conscious is probably the best defense against any of the threats that may develop to target the Mac. This doesn't mean loading your Mac up with security apps, but instead understanding the type of actions that put your Mac, and you, at risk. Avoiding these types of risky behaviors is likely to be the best defense against malware.

Lastly, you should realize that malware threats against any computing platform, including the Mac, can dynamically change from day to day. So while I don’t see a need for an active anti-malware app for my Mac today, tomorrow may be another story.

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