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Tech 101 | Mac Focus

Non-PC Users Less Vulnerable to Virus Attacks

March 08, 2001|JIM HEID | jim@jimheid.com

So, were you victimized by the so-called Kournikova virus a couple of weeks ago? Of course you weren't--Macs are immune to this latest piece of malware. Not that you'd know this from media reports, most of which simply described Kournikova as an "e-mail virus," implying that it can affect any computer platform and e-mail program--not just Windows PCs running Microsoft's Outlook.

This column isn't the place to discuss accuracy in journalism or Russian tennis celebs. But it is a good place to assess virus threats as they relate to the Mac. And on that front, there's good news: for a variety of reasons, the Mac is far less vulnerable than Windows.

The most widespread recent virus infections, including the Kournikova invasion, the May 2000 "I love you" outbreak and the Melissa epidemic of 1999, have a common denominator: They exploit the ability of Windows and the Windows version of Microsoft Outlook to be controlled by scripts--command sequences that control Windows in a kind of autopilot mode.

Each of these viruses arrived as a file attached to an e-mail. When a user opened the attachment, Windows dutifully executed the script. The script instructed Microsoft Outlook to e-mail the virus to every person in the user's Outlook address book, thereby causing the virus to spread at an exponential pace.

Macs are immune to these viruses because neither the Mac operating system nor the Mac versions of Microsoft's e-mail programs support the same kind of scripting that Windows does. Like less-malevolent software providers, the creators of these viruses targeted the largest audience. In other words, the Mac's immunity to these viruses comes not from technical superiority but from relative obscurity.

But could it happen here? Yes. The Mac provides its own autopilot facility called AppleScript, and it's supported by Microsoft's Entourage and Outlook Express e-mail programs. Some AppleScript-based malware appeared a few years ago, but no one has created an AppleScript virus that exploits the automation capabilities of Mac e-mail programs. At least not yet.

Even if such a virus did appear, Entourage provides a security mechanism. If an AppleScript attempts to send an e-mail, Entourage displays a warning and asks whether you'd like to proceed. Unfortunately, Microsoft's Outlook Expressdisplays no such warning.

Ultimately, avoiding viruses is up to you. Beware of e-mail attachments, even ones sent by friends or colleagues. You can't receive a virus by reading an e-mail, but you can get one from opening an e-mail attachment. Graphics files such as JPEGs and GIFs can't carry viruses, but Microsoft Office documents can, as can AppleScripts. (An AppleScript file's icon resembles a scroll.)

Also consider investing in a virus-protection utility such as Symantec's $69 Norton AntiVirus for Macintosh (http://www.symantec.com) or McAfee's $49 Virex (http://www.mcafee.com). Both search for and remove viruses, and both are updated when new viruses hit.

Symantec also offers the $99 Norton Internet Security bundle, which includes Norton AntiVirus and Norton Personal Firewall. The latter guards against hacker intrusions, which, though rare on the Mac, are possible, especially for users with continuous Internet connections such as digital subscriber lines and cable modems. Norton Internet Security also includes Aladdin Systems' iClean, which lets you examine and delete Web browser cookies and surfing-history files.

One problem with virus-detection and other Internet security programs is that they impose inconveniences on your computing routine. Scanning incoming e-mail attachments for viruses takes time, and tweaking firewall settings is about as fun as flossing.

But a virus infection or hacker invasion can impose an even bigger inconvenience. If you're prone to attack,the inconvenience of a software security guard might be better than the alternative.

To learn about Mac viruses and virus hoaxes, visit the Mac Virus site at http://www.macvirus.com; and Symantec's AntiVirus Resource Center at http://www.sarc.com. Also, Microsoft has published information about Office 2001's potential vulnerability to viruses; go to http://www.microsoft.com/mac and search for "virus."

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Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine.

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