So far, Mac OS X users have been largely unaffected by the global plague of viruses, spyware, and other malware. Conventional wisdom holds that this relatively blissful state won’t last forever; as the Mac’s market share increases, it becomes a potentially more interesting target for the bad guys.
Even today, a Mac with all the latest security updates from Apple is vulnerable to a number of Unix-based exploits (such as those that affect certain Web forms). Spam, of course, is a constant hassle that plays no favorites when it comes to operating systems. And even though malware attacks are few and far between, those that occurred have caused tremendous inconvenience.
Here, then, is an overview of current Mac security software in the following categories: antispam, antivirus, firewall, anti-spyware, and security suites. This is not an entirely comprehensive list—for example, I’ve left out software that runs only on older versions of the Mac OS—but it includes the most popular and highest-rated choices.
(My personal picks in each category are shown in bold.)
No Mac user (or anyone else, for that matter) should be without a good antispam program. Although some server-based systems do a pretty good filtering job, you’ll get the most accurate results from a tool that lets you train it on the mail you receive personally (correcting the software when it produces a false positive or false negative).
Last year I presented a roundup of six such programs for Mac here: Spam Filters for Your Mac: Six Choices.
A few things have changed since then. JunkMatcher still hasn’t been updated for Leopard compatibility, so it’s effectively off the list; ditto for Spamfire, whose last update was in March 2007.
On the other hand, Hendrickson’s Em@ilCRX has been superseded by the company’s new Purify program. Meanwhile, Personal Antispam, SpamSieve, and SpamSweep have all received significant updates.
Nevertheless, my bottom-line advice is essentially unchanged: SpamSieve is my top pick. Personal Antispam is quite good too, but includes a lot of other components I’d rather do without.
• Intego Personal Antispam X5 ($49.95)
• Purify ($29.95)
As of May 2008 (fingers crossed), there aren’t any Mac OS X viruses in the wild. (There are, however, several Trojan horses and a few other prominent examples of malware.)
So at this point, antivirus software can only protect Mac users against hypothetical threats. Only time will tell how well they fare when confronted with an actual virus infection. Sure, they can filter out Windows viruses (to prevent you from spreading them by email), but the combination of a decent spam filter and common sense can do an even better job at that.
For the time being, my professional opinion is that most Mac users can quite safely skip antivirus software. (For a Mac security expert’s perspective on this, see Rich Mogull’s article Should Mac Users Run Antivirus Software?) If you’re paranoid, however, or if you’re trying to conform to a corporate IT policy that requires antivirus software on every machine, no matter what, you have several choices.
Intego Virus Barrier X5 offers arguably the best protection of the bunch, but at a higher price than the others (even in quantity). Norton AntiVirus used to be the gold standard, but it’s lagged behind Intego in overall quality and speed in recent versions.
Meanwhile, several of these products are geared primarily toward large businesses—namely, avast! Antivirus, McAfee VirusScan, and Sophos Anti-Virus. If you want attractive high-volume pricing and the comfort of a big name in virus protection behind you, those are all worth considering.
The one product in this list I can’t recommend is the free ClamXav. Although it’s undoubtedly better than nothing, it’s relatively slow, doesn’t have all the automatic scanning features the other products do, and lacks definitions for some Mac malware.
• avast! Antivirus Mac Edition
(licenses start at $39.95 per seat; prices decrease with quantity and license duration)
• Intego Virus Barrier X5 ($69.95)
• McAfee VirusScan for Mac
(minimum order of 3 licenses; prices start at $36.55 per seat and decrease with volume)
• Norton AntiVirus 11.0 for Mac
• Sophos Anti-Virus for Mac
(licenses start at around $27 per seat; prices decrease with quantity and license duration)
Mac OS X has a decent built-in firewall (even though the Leopard version is perhaps less flexible than the Tiger version was). Strangely, it’s turned off by default, but that’s easily remedied with a couple of clicks. However, if you want more control than Apple’s meager user interface offers, you can choose a third-party alternative.
Of these options, Intego NetBarrier X5 is the more user-friendly by far. DoorStop X is more geek-oriented, but offers tremendous flexibility. (Unfortunately, Norton’s Personal Firewall for Macintosh has not been updated for Leopard compatibility.)
• DoorStop X
($49, or $79 as part of DoorStop X Security Suite, which includes Who’s There? Firewall Advisor and the ebook “Internet Security for Your Macintosh”)
•Intego NetBarrier X5
Related to these are a couple of programs that have firewall-type features but focus mainly on alerting you to suspicious incoming traffic. Who’s There? Firewall Advisor is much easier to use, while IPNetSentryX has advanced filtering and blocking features.
• Who’s There? Firewall Advisor
($39, or $79 as part of DoorStop X Security Suite)
• IPNetSentryX ($60)
The flip side of that task is monitoring programs that are making outbound Internet connections behind your back—which could be for legitimate purposes (like checking for updates) or something more sinister. The best tool for this job is Little Snitch:
• Little Snitch ($29.95; volume discounts and family licenses also available)
Although spyware of all kinds is rampant on Windows, there’s currently very little of it that runs on Mac OS X—if by “spyware” you mean things like keyloggers and programs that report on what Web sites you visit.
However, phishing emails and their associated Web sites can certainly affect Mac users, as can Web browser cookies that track certain kinds of browsing behavior.
MacScan can delete all cookies, just those from a particular browser, or just those that match a blacklist of “tracking cookies.” It also detects keyloggers and some Trojan horses (see MacScan for a list).
•Macscan ($29.99; 3-user family pack, $49.99)
1Password, my favorite password utility, takes an entirely different approach to anti-phishing and anti-keylogging protection. If you always rely on this tool to create, store, and fill in your passwords, you’re protected against phishing attacks (because the fake sites won’t match the URLs associated with your stored passwords, so the program won’t fill them in) and, to a certain extent, keylogging (because you need never actually type your passwords at all).
Bundles of multiple security programs are very much the norm in the Windows world, but for Macs, there’s really only one suite worth mentioning: Intego Security Barrier X5. It comes in two editions; both include NetBarrier (firewall) and VirusBarrier, but the Antispam Edition also includes Personal Antispam, while the Backup Edition includes Personal Backup. (Norton’s Internet Security 3.0 suite has not been updated for compatibility with Tiger or Leopard.)
• Antispam Edition (NetBarrier, VirusBarrier, Personal Antispam): $89.95
• Backup Edition (NetBarrier, VirusBarrier, Personal Backup): $99.95
Windows users have a much wider selection of security software—but then, they have a much greater need for it, too. Most Mac users can get by perfectly well with nothing more than a good antispam program. But if you need more—or simply want to be extra cautious—you can put together a first-class collection of tools from the options listed above.