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The Rise of the Mac Virus: its Origins and its Future

Posted In Products Review, Security, Technology Reviews - By Techtiplib on Thursday, February 14th, 2013 With No Comments »

Ever since Apple’s entry into the computing scene, Mac users have been able to largely ignore most of the virus threats that their PC peers have faced over the years. In fact, this was a major selling point for Apple.  Given their unique operating system, Apple was able to market their machines as immune to the same malware attacks, Trojan horses and computer viruses that PC’s can become susceptible to.  “It doesn’t get PC viruses”, the official website claimed.  “Safeguard your data, by doing nothing.” it went on to say.   But recently, all of that has changed. 

While the exact date that the Apples website’s wording was changed is not precisely known, the switch happened sometime this past June.  The bold statements that touted Mac immunity were quietly changed to less definitive claims.  “It’s built to be safe”, and “Safety, built right”.  What caused these changes in wording?  Well, just a few months before more than 600,000 individuals using Mac operating systems fell victim to a Trojan virus called “Flashback”.  Flashback worked by entering your system through its namesake’s program Adobe Flash.

Users would unknowingly download a bogus Adobe Flash program that would infiltrate the system via a hiccup in Oracle’s Java program.  Without providing administrative rights or even an additional prompt outside the regular install cues, Flashback would install itself subtly in the background of users’ computers.  Users who were infected with this piece of malware would begin to notice strange redirects occurring on their machines when surfing the net.  Some users even reported repeated hang-ups and crashes of their machines.  For those who had their internet usage compromised, browsers would suddenly switch over to a host of spam and advertisement sites.  While more of an annoyance than a serious issue, most users never reported having any confidential information stolen that could be directly attributed to this Trojan’s presence on their machines.

While the Flashback virus perhaps received the largest amounts of press, it was not the first piece of malware to affect Apple iOS devices.  Since the late 80’s a handful of viruses have made their way on to Macs.  The first virus that posed a threat to the Mac iOs occurred in 1987 and was dubbed the nVIR virus.  This virus infiltrated machines via floppy disk.  Due to this reliance, its spread was not that prominent and users infected would only experience mild system lag and hang-ups.  Throughout the 90’s and the early 2000’s other smaller viruses and Trojans made their way on to Macs but almost none of them were Mac exclusive.  These attacks made their way onto Macs through cross-platform programs like Excel and different publishing programs. 

It wasn’t until 2006 that the first ever Mac exclusive virus showed up on the radar.  Penned “Leap-A”, this piece of malware spread through the Mac program iChat.  The program would in essence, “leap” to the four most recent programs launched on the machine.  If those programs were able to be infected they would often become inoperable and unable to be launched.  However, if those programs were not capable of being infected by the Leap-A virus, nothing further would happen.

While the Flashback virus has since been contained, many experts warn that the worst is yet to come.  In order to combat this to some extent, Macs are now coming equipped with a program called, “Gateway” that only allows trusted programs to be downloaded.  While this was met with some criticism, mostly in the vein of how it would limit Mac users, the overall consensus this that this is a step in the right direction.  In order for Apple to jump back aboard the virus-free train, certain restrictions must be placed on their machines.

In addition to the native Gatekeeper, more pressure has been put on anti-virus suppliers to develop a security suite that specifically caters to Apple iOS devices, both mobile and standard.  While the demographic of Mac users is still pretty low (some 15 to 25% of all computer users), each year it is on the rise.  As this number continues to grow, so will the number of cybercriminal target and as a result, the number of Mac-specific viruses.

Author bio:

Charles Trentham is diehard tech blogger who loves to write about software, technology, and future science. Recently he’s begun tackling topics related to antivirus and Trend Micro in order to feed his tech habits. He enjoys spending time with his family and Kelpie named Elaine.

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