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Mac Attack!

In 2006, Apple's operating system will likely see major attacks.

Start talking about security concerns with a hard-core Mac user and the conversation frequently turns into an argument based on history: "There has never been a virus on Mac OS X, and the Mac OS has much better protections than Windows. So I don't have to worry about security."

Yet history is a poor indicator of future performance. The first two assertions are, for the most part, true. There has never been a major Mac OS X virus. And the Mac OS X has many of the advantages of its open-source and Unix-like underpinnings, including least-privilege access for users.

But Apple users who believe they don't have to worry about security are likely to have a rude awakening this year. Three trends are converging to make Apple's popular personal computers the new proving ground for hackers and online attackers. First, the platform has become more popular among people who search for flaws. Second, the move to an x86 architecture means that the majority of hackers will be able to write exploits using assembly code for Macs. And third, increasing market share makes the platform a more tempting target.

Apple PowerBooks and Mac minis are cool, yet there's a deeper reason for their popularity among people who search for flaws. The OS's core underpinnings are based on a variant of Unix known as the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD). The younger generation of researchers cut their teeth on some distribution of Linux, the open-source descendant of Unix. The Mac OS X gives them a slick interface when they want cool, and a Unix-like operating system when they want to go deep.

In 2005, more software flaws were found in the Apple Mac OS X than in Microsoft Windows. But only 29 of the Mac problems were of high severity, while 38 of the Windows problems were of high severity.

Malicious hackers will be able to code exploits more quickly for the latest crop of Macs because of Apple's move to the x86 architecture—a platform better understood by hackers than the PowerPC platform.

Finally, while Apple hasn't had tremendous success in increasing its share of the personal computer market, analysts predict that this situation will change in 2006. The estimates are based on surveys that have shown that almost 20 percent of PC users who have bought an iPod will buy a Mac rather than a PC as their next computer. Such momentum could mean decent market share for Apple, but unfortunately it also means that more online attackers are likely to target Mac users. While Mac OS X is more secure than Windows, dozens of critical flaws augur that attackers will have more than ample opportunity to compromise systems.

Apple users should make certain that their Mac OS X firewall and automatic patching are turned on. They should run antivirus software as well and be sure to update the virus definitions daily.

Finally, users should back up important files often. Ask yourself what would happen if you lost all your data today—and prepare for the worst by scheduling regular backups as often as necessary.

There's only one certainty in computer security: An attack will eventually get through your defenses. Be ready for it.

Five Ways to Stay Safe

Apple customers should start taking security more seriously. Here are the basics.

Choose a good password. The best passwords are longer than eight characters, are not composed of a single word found in the dictionary, and have at least one non-alphanumeric character.

Use firewalls. A hardware firewall is a good first line of defense. The software firewall in OS X can alert you to rogue programs.

Patch regularly. A fully patched Mac is more secure than one that is not.

Back up your files. Your data is more valuable than your computer.

Use antivirus software. The mac's increasing popularity means that significant virus attacks are not far behind.

Little bastards!!!

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