How Viruses and Spyware Work

Even though OS X has been immune from the swarm of viruses and spyware that have plagued Windows computers, times change. So when it comes to computers nowadays, you can’t take Internet security for granted — even if you own a Mac. Sensible security starts with you, and that means backing up all your important data.

So what’s the difference between viruses and spyware?

  • Viruses are menacing programs created for the sole purpose of wreaking havoc on a computer or network. They spread when you download suspect software, visit shady Web sites, or pass around infected discs. Computer viruses take many forms..

  • Spyware typically differs from traditional computer viruses, which may try to shut down your computer (or some of its programs). Authors of spyware aren’t necessarily out to shut you down. Rather, they quietly attempt to monitor your behavior so that they can benefit at your expense by tracking your behavior and secretly reporting it to third parties. Windows users are all too familiar with spyware.

    At the lesser extremes, your computer is served pop-up ads that companies hope will eventually lead to a purchase. This type of spyware is known as adware. At its most severe, spyware can place your personal information in the hands of a not-so-nice person. Under those circumstances, you could get totally ripped off. Indeed, the most malicious of spyware programs, called keyloggers or snoopware, can capture every keystroke you enter, whether you’re holding court in a public chat room or typing a password.

The good news is that as of this writing, no major reports of OS X–related spyware have surfaced. But there’s always a first time.

There are suggestions that OS X isn’t as bulletproof as was once believed. Back in May 2006, the McAfee Avert Labs security threat research firm issued a report claiming that the Mac is just as vulnerable to targeted malware, or malicious software attacks, as other operating systems. Although the volume of threats is low, no invisible cloak is protecting Apple’s products. Moreover, the security firm expected malicious hackers to increasingly place the Mac OS in the crosshairs given Apple’s recent (at the time) transition to Intel chips and especially as Apple’s products gain popularity.

Mac loyalists shouldn’t get complacent, even though no major security breaches have hit the headlines in the years since the report was issued. For starters, you should install the security updates that show up on your Mac when you click System Preferences under Software Updates. And you should load software on your computer only from companies and Web sites you trust.

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