The Best Mac Security Software

The Mac may be comparatively safer, yet Mac users can still benefit from software to guard against security threats from malware, spam and network attacks.


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Apple’s Get-a-Mac ads (and many longtime Mac users and fans) love to imply that Mac OS X is a far safer and more secure platform than Windows. And there is a ring of truth to that implication. There are far more instances of malware and viruses bogging down Windows PCs than afflict Macs.

But that doesn’t mean Macs are perfectly safe and secure computers -- after all, no computer is completely safe and secure on the Internet.

New malware threats (including the discovery of the first botnet operating on infected Mac OS X machines) are cropping up this year. It’s likely just a sign of things to come as Apple gains market share and visibility.

So Mac users need to understand their options for protecting their systems from malware, network attacks, and other threats.

In this guide, I’ll break down three potential areas of danger – 1) viruses and malware, 2) network attacks, and 3) spam – and details some of best the tools to combat them.

Anti-Virus Tools

Let’s start with the classic specter of computer security – the virus or malware. The word virus is almost a misnomer these days. There are still some classic versions of viruses that spread from disk to disk, wreaking havoc and deleting files – many from a kid who created a virus because he could.

In truth, however, the bigger threats today are from forms of malware that compromise open network connections to servers over the Internet. These servers can then record personal information (user passwords, keystrokes) and take over a machine in the background.

Often these attacks fall into the categories of Trojan horses that masquerade as some innocuous application or video codec that gets installed by the average user. The most recent Mac threats started in this form as components included in real software packages pirated over the Internet.

Being vigilant about what your install and where it comes from is one way to combat this threat. But for the average Mac user who installs a file to view content on a website, the threat still exists.

Another major virus threat is that of macro viruses – most often associated with Microsoft Office. While Macs are typically not as likely to experience severe damage if they open an infected Office document, they are still capable of experiencing some problems – and of passing the virus on to others.

So every Mac should have some form of anti-virus software. Here are the major options:

ClamXav – ClamXav is a simple open source anti-virus tool that is available for free. It is based on the open source Unix clamav, but sports a Mac-like graphical interface.

ClamXav works pretty well, though its interface is a little clunky and it is generally slow at performing scans. Its big downside is that it offers less automation options than other tools, meaning users must be more pro-active about updating virus definitions (the files anti-virus tools use to detect malware) as well as performing scans. It also doesn’t allow you to scan your entire startup drive, meaning you’ll manually need to select folders to scan.

McAfee VirusScan – McAfee has a long history of developing anti-virus tools and this was at one time bundled with Apple’s .Mac service (the precursor of Mobile Me). McAfee is a decent if not stellar product. It tends to be slower than some of its competition and does show itself to be a product produced from a largely PC-oriented company.

Norton AntiVirus – Like McAfee, Norton develops security and utility tools for both the Windows and the Mac. A while back, Norton’s Mac offerings in both anti-virus and disk utilities were among the best products on the market.

But times change. Norton still produces a compelling product and I’d probably pick it over VirusScan. However, it too suffers from being very obviously a Mac product designed by a predominantly PC-focused company. For businesses that are already invested in other Norton products for managing their PCs, however, it can be an easy addition to an already complete suite (most likely with volume licensing discounts).

Sophos Anti-Virus SBE – Sophos also suffers a bit from being a PC-oriented company, but less than McAfee or Norton do. They produce a simple and lightweight solution for Mac OS X that can be centrally managed very easily.

The downside to Sophos, in my opinion, is less their PC-centric nature than their business-oriented nature and licensing. If you’re a business that has multiple Macs and PCs to protect, Sophos is a great choice (particularly if you’ve got a Windows server – even one in virtualization) to use for central management of both scanning and updating. In fact, for small businesses and/or cross platform businesses that need a simple and effective centralized management option, Sophos is a very good choice.

Intego VirusBarrier – Hands down, the best choice for consumers and for fully Mac-based businesses has to be Intego’s VirusBarrier. The company is entirely Mac focused, provides a solution that is simple, lightweight, and has a very Mac-like feel to it that make it a natural choice for many Mac users.

It also offers centralized management (and integration with Intego’s other security tools) for businesses and schools – though if you have a mix of both Macs and PCs to centrally manage, you might want to opt for Norton or Sophos because of their cross-platform management capabilities (and potentially better pricing due to larger volume purchases).

MacScan – MacScan is an anti-spyware rather than an anti-virus tool. The software is designed for detecting spyware processes and applications (keylogging, remote access, and DNS poisoning tools) that may not fall into the typical categories of viruses.

It also focuses on Internet cookies and similar data gathering tools that are not directly classified as malware. The software compares cookies (small bits of data stored by web browsers to keep track of user data when moving from one web page to another) against a blacklist of known malicious web services.

MacScan is a great complement to other anti-virus and security tools and is especially helpful for Macs commonly used by large numbers of individuals (who might place keyloggers and other malicious tools directly on a Mac rather than remotely).

One final tip, regardless of your anti-virus choice: if you’re running Windows on a Mac (either using boot camp or virtualization tools like Parallels, VMWare Fusion, or Virtual Box) don’t forget that you’ll need anti-virus software on that front too. Norton and Intego both offer Mac/PC protection suites to fill this need in a single product (though in Intego’s case the Windows software is provided by partnering with BitDefender AntiVirus for Windows).

Continued: Mac firewalls, anti-spam software

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Tags: security, Apple, Mac, malware, OS X

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