Is ignorance really bliss, or is it just ignorant?

David Braue
3 February, 2009
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A mate of mine, who is a happy recent convert to the Mac, recently emailed me with a conundrum. He had bought a copy of Adobe Photoshop from a tabletop vendor in Hong Kong – heck, at about $10 it was irresistible – and was about to install it but suddenly began thinking about viruses.

‘I know there aren’t viruses on the Mac,’ he said, reiterating conventional wisdom, ‘but how do I know this disc doesn’t have something nasty buried in it? A Trojan horse or something?’

The simple answer, of course, was that he couldn’t know any such thing; as with all such pirated software, you get what you pay for. And, if what you pay for happens to come with a bonus that’s a nasty new virus, well, you’re stuffed.

With robust antivirus solutions already well-established, those PC users who are comfortable buying pirated software may feel more comfortable knowing there’s little chance it could be infected with any sort of nastiness that hasn’t already been discovered and documented – although this is of course not always the case.

When it comes to the Mac, however, the industry has for years curiously laboured under this belief that Macs are somehow oblivious to the same sorts of tricks. Sure, weaknesses in browsers and other applications might make Mac apps susceptible to all sorts of malicious exploits, but the old-fashioned spreading-virus trick just hasn’t broken out in the Macosphere in the same way it has in the rest of the known computer universe.

Or has it? Because, as my cheapskate friend found out, there really isn’t any sure-fire way of knowing whether our Macs are actually infected with some horrible virus that’s slowly wreaking havoc on our movies, bastardising our Australian-spelt documents to American English, adding moustaches to our iPhoto pictures, or even – and this would be no fun at all – planting a ticking timebomb that will erase everything on our hard drives.

For all we know, they could already be lurking in there, waiting to strike.

Sure, there are slowly evolving antivirus solutions trying to stake some claim on the Mac. However, given the cross-platform industry’s historical slowness in moving most things onto Mac OS, I’m not sure any of us is totally comfortable with entrusting ourselves to the protection they offer, then downloading with abandon. But is trusting naivete the answer either?

Will Mac users ever get to the point where they install antivirus software as a matter of course? I doubt it.

Should they? I guess that depends. Not even Apple can make up its mind on this issue, recently recommending and then de-recommending (forgive my neologism) the use of antivirus software on Macs.

Certainly, it is looking more and more like those nasty virus-writing types are learning how to spell “Mac”: a recent pirated copy of iWork ’09 apparently came with a bonus gift, a Trojan horse that gets root access and gives its author direct access to your Mac. Back To My Mac, indeed.

Hot on its heels was another one, this time affecting pirated copies of Photoshop. Looks like my mate had reason to be scared.

It also, I might venture, looks like we all might have a bit of reason to be scared. Because while it might be a bit misleading (but technically true) to suggest that the number of known Mac malware packages has jumped several hundred percent in recent months, I suspect we’re going to see more and more of this sort of thing. And, once the idiots that write these things cotton onto the fact it can be done, the floodgates may well open wide.

Or, perhaps, they already have. Because while we all labour under the belief that we will remain impervious to malware by avoiding pirated software, downloading from reputable sources – and trusting that the basest kindness of mankind would prevent any Mac developer from ever writing nasty code – the fact is that you really don’t know where that DMG has been, or what’s inside it.

When it comes to security, Mac users have traditionally been like those who say dark-skinned people don’t need sunscreen. They may get away with it, but there will be those who learn the hard way that a bit of extra protection isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Windows users used to be carefree like that too. And then came the Trojans. And the viruses. And the worms. And Microsoft’s Clippy. And it all got ugly, real fast.

Not that Macs, of course, could ever be that ugly. But with real, confirmed Trojans apparently now out in the wild, it’s enough to make you think twice.

Or is it?

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