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Do Macs need antivirus software in 2020?

do Macs need antivirus
Dark destroyer: are Macs immune from infection?

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Do Macs need antivirus software? That very much depends on who you listen to.

Last week, I asked my Mac-owning Twitter followers if they used security software on their Macs. The answer was an overwhelming ‘no’.

Granted, it’s a relatively small sample, but three-quarters of respondents believe they are safe without antivirus software on their Macs.

However, this week one of those followers messaged me privately. He asked not to be named in this piece, but it’s fair to say this chap is more tech literate than your average Mac owner.

“Last week, you asked the Twitter Mac collective about antivirus,” he wrote. “The resounding response was that it’s not worth bothering with. I was in that camp. I’ve changed my mind. I ran a scan and found a trojan in my library cache. I’ve gone with Bitdefender. It’s free on the Mac App Store.”

Do Macs get viruses?

You’d be forgiven for thinking not. If you remember the old Mitchell and Webb adverts from a decade or so ago, the clear implication was that Macs simply don’t get viruses.

Does that still hold true today (if it were even true then)? Not according to security company Malwarebytes, who last week released a report which claimed Mac threats were growing faster than their Windows counterparts for the first time ever, “with nearly twice as many Mac threats detected per endpoint as Windows threats”.

To be precise, Malwarebytes “detected an average of 11 threats per Mac endpoint in 2019 — nearly double the average of 5.8 threats per endpoint on Windows”. That was increase of more than 400% year-on-year.

That sounds alarming, but closer inspection of Malwarebytes’ report shows the true picture is nowhere near as dramatic as those headline figures.

By far the two most prevalent threats on the Mac were pieces of malware called NewTab and PCVARK. NewTab is one of those annoying web browser infiltrators that hijacks web searches and sends them to a different search engine. It’s irritating, but hardly fatal.

PCVARK tries to convince you you’ve got a problem on your Mac and, ironically, you can solve it by downloading its crummy system optimiser.

Don’t get me wrong, you wouldn’t want either of these pieces of software on your Mac, but they’re not the kind of malware that would cripple your computer, either.

As Malwarebytes’ report states: “Of all the threats seen this year, only one incident involved anything other than tricking the user into downloading and opening something they shouldn’t. That is the incident in which Coinbase, and several other cryptocurrency companies, were targeted with malware that infected systems through a Firefox zero-day vulnerability. Affected systems were infected with the older Wirenet and Mokes malware. This was the first time such a vulnerability had been used to infect Macs in any significant way since 2012.”

In other words, unless you’re conned into installing something you shouldn’t – which can happen to the best of us – you’re pretty safe on a Mac.

Does Apple recommend you install antivirus software?

It’s hard to find anything official from Apple on this topic. Its website certainly doesn’t go as far as those old ads, which all but claimed Macs were immune from infection. But nor is Apple pushing you to install third-party security software.

Visit the software section of Apple’s online store, and you won’t find a single security suite stocked. And while, as my correspondent noted, you can find security software in the Mac App Store, it feels as if Apple would rather it wasn’t there. There’s no Security section; no antivirus apps appear in the Store’s ‘Discover’ front page.

If you delve deep into the security information about macOS on the Apple website, a paper on the business benefits of macOS says that: “Should malware make its way onto a Mac, macOS also includes technology to remediate infection”.

Apparently, “Apple issues updates to macOS to remove malware from any impacted systems that are configured to receive automatic security updates. Once the malware removal tool receives updated information, malware is removed after the next restart.”

So, should I install extra antivirus software or not?

Certainly, having another pair of eyes on your system won’t do any harm – apart from a minor hit to performance by having security software running in the background.

However, I think my correspondent has probably struck on a sensible compromise with the free BitDefender app from the App Store.

BitDefender for Mac

It doesn’t run proactively and doesn’t sit in the background scanning every file you download to your Mac. Nor will it stop you downloading malicious software. However, you can manually run it every once in a while to check that nothing has slipped through. If you’ve noticed suspicious behaviour on your Mac, a quick scan will hopefully nip the problem in the bud.

If you want something more proactive, the paid-for version of Bitdefender (£28.99) will do just that, as will many other paid-for suites. If you’ve got kids running amok on your Mac, or you simply want the peace of mind that nothing should get through, you might consider that a price worth paying.

Me? I’m happy to take my chances and run the occasional scan.

NOW READ THIS: Is there a printable list of Mac keyboard shortcuts?

About the author

Barry Collins

Barry has scribbled about tech for almost 20 years for The Sunday Times, PC Pro, WebUser, Which? and many others. He was once Deputy Editor of Mail Online and remains in therapy to this day. Email Barry at barry@bigtechquestion.com.

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