Malware on Macs: How real is the threat, and should we actually care?

Image of laptop infected with malware
(Image credit: © Unsplash / Michael Geiger)

Apple offers various built-in malware defenses with its Mac operating systems, which has traditionally made them much more secure than Windows and other devices. However, this doesn’t mean your Mac can’t get a virus. 

In fact, a 2020 report by Malwarebytes found that Mac devices contain 11 threats on average, almost double the number found on a Windows device. Here, we take a closer look at Mac security, how real the threat is, and what actions you can implement to protect your digital activity.

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What built-in protection does Apple offer? 

Since it was founded, Apple has boasted a strong focus on device security and keeping your online activity protected. Its Mac devices are built around various security features and programs, which go a long way toward keeping your device secure. 

Some of these security features include the following:

This program is designed to make sure that you only run trusted software on your Mac device. Usually, it’s best to download apps from the Apple App Store so that you know they are secure. However, third-party apps can also pass Gatekeeper without issues, as long as they have been through a process known as notarization. 

Notarization is the process where developers have their software scanned by Apple for malicious content. This is an automated process that is designed to detect things like code-signing issues, malware or viruses, and anything else that could negatively impact the user experience. 

Once complete, a ticket is generated, which can be linked to the software. This tells Apple’s Gatekeeper program whether the software is safe to use or not.  

XProtect is Apple’s native antivirus program. It’s built into all Mac devices, and it offers powerful malware protection. It’s regularly updated by Apple to ensure it can detect the latest malware strains, and it comes with various tools to help you remove and quarantine threats if they are detected. 

However, none of these programs are perfect, and your device may be experiencing a nasty malware infection without you realizing it.

Are Apple’s built-in tools good enough?

As we’ve established, Apple offers advanced anti-malware and device protection tools, and these do a great job of protecting your device from malicious programs. However, they aren’t perfect, and it’s still possible for viruses and other malware to sneak past their defenses. 

One of the main reasons for this is Apple’s reputation. Since Mac devices are known to be much more secure than Windows and other operating systems, many users mistakenly believe that this means they can’t get viruses. 

However, this isn’t the case, and your Apple device can definitely be infected with harmful malware. Hackers and other malicious third parties are taking advantage of this complacency by developing Mac-specific malware that’s designed to bypass Apple’s built-in defenses and lodge itself in your computer. 

So, the bottom line is no, Apple’s built-in tools aren’t good enough on their own.

How do I choose the right antivirus for my Mac?

Choosing the right antivirus for your Mac device can be a complicated process. Do you need to pay for a premium option? Or is a free antivirus program going to be good enough? 

Well, first up, it’s almost always worth paying for premium antivirus and security software if you’re serious about protecting your device(s). There are also a few other things to think about when selecting the perfect antivirus/security program for your needs. These include the following: 

Ease of use: It’s important to select a Mac antivirus program that you’re comfortable using, or else you may struggle to harness its full capabilities to protect your device effectively.  

Detection rates: It’s worth doing some research to determine which Mac antivirus has the best detection rates. Regular automatic software updates are crucial, as they enable your antivirus to stay up-to-date with the latest malware. 

Cost: There are just as many free Mac antivirus programs as there are premium ones. Decide how much you’re willing to pay and whether you really need to purchase a premium subscription. 

Extra features: Many Mac antivirus programs also come with a suite of extra features like a VPN, a password manager, parental controls, and real-time web protection. 

Check out our guide to the best Mac antivirus software to find out more.

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Perimeter 81 is a platform offering some of the best network security tools we’ve seen. When used alongside a reliable antivirus program like Avast or Malwarebytes, it can create an almost impenetrable network that bad actors can’t gain access to. 

One of the best things about Perimeter 81 is that it uses advanced encryption, zero-trust network access, and automatic WiFi security to reduce the risk of data breaches. It enables you to set up multi-factor authentication, and its secure single sign-on tools are virtually flawless. There are also tools like a powerful firewall and a business VPN for even more security.

Bonus: Telltale signs that your Mac is infected

It can be hard to tell if your Mac is infected with a virus or other malware. Watch out for the following telltale signs.

  • Poor performance and overheating, which can indicate malware using a high amount of background resources. 
  • Adware attacks, which are identified by an overload of pop-ups and ads where you wouldn’t usually expect to see them. 
  • Storage space reduction, caused by a malicious file automatically downloading to your hard drive, taking up disk space in the process. 
  • Unwanted downloads, especially apps and files that you don’t want and/or can’t remove.

Any other strange behavior can also indicate the presence of a malicious file on your Mac, and we’d suggest downloading an antivirus program ASAP if you’re worried about your device’s health.

Conclusion

Apple Mac devices are more secure than those using other operating systems, but this can lull users into a false sense of security. It’s still possible for your Mac to be infected with malware, which means that it’s important to use a reliable Mac antivirus and to implement other security controls where possible. 

Check out our guide to the best Mac antivirus if you’d like help choosing a program to protect your device. Using one of the best Mac VPNs can also help you protect your device. You might also like to read more about why you should look into an antivirus package for your Mac.

Daniel Blechynden

Daniel is a freelance copywriter with over six years experience writing for publications such as TechRadar, Tom’s Guide, and Hosting Review. He specializes in B2B and B2C tech and finance, with a particular focus on VoIP, website building, web hosting, and other related fields.