By Mark L. Chambers

It’s a good idea to take steps to keep your Mac secure online. Most people have heard horror stories about hacking: Big corporations and big government installations seem to be as open to hackers as a public library. Often, you read that entire identities are being stolen online.

When you consider that your Mac can contain extremely sensitive and private information from your life — such as your Social Security number and financial information — it’s enough to make you nervous about turning on your computer long enough to check your eBay auctions.

How much of this is Hollywood-style drama? How truly real is the danger, especially to Mac owners? Here, you will find out how to feel comfortable and secure in the online world by understanding the truth about what can happen and telling you how you can protect your system from intrusions.

One quick note: This is written with the home and small-business Mac owner in mind. Macs that access the Internet over a larger corporate network are likely already protected by that knight in shining armor: the network system administrator. (Insert applause here.) Check with your system administrator before you attempt to implement any of the recommendations made here.

Here’s what can happen to you online without the right safeguards, on any computer:

  • Hackers can access shared information on your network. If you’re running an unguarded network, it’s possible for others to gain access to your documents and applications or wreak havoc on your system.
  • Your system could become infected with a virus or dangerous macro. Left to their own devices, these misbehaving programs and macro commands can delete files or turn your entire hard drive into an empty paperweight. (Although Mac viruses are few at this time, it’s not likely to be a luxury that Mac owners will get to enjoy for long.)
  • Unsavory individuals can attempt to contact members of your family. This type of attack can take place over Messages (the Apple instant-messaging and conferencing program), email, or web discussion boards, putting your family’s safety at risk.
  • Hackers can use your system to attack others. Your computer can be tricked into helping hackers when they attempt to knock out websites on the Internet.
  • Criminals can attempt to con you out of your credit card or personal information. The Internet is a prime tool used by people trying to steal identities.

To be absolutely honest, just like every time you drive a car, some danger is indeed present every time you or any user of your Mac connects to the Internet. However, here’s the good news: If you use the proper safeguards, it’s impossible for most of those worst-case scenarios to happen on your Mac, and the rest would be so difficult that even the most diehard hacker would throw in the towel long before reaching your computer or network.

Virtually everyone reading this really doesn’t have anything that’s worth a malicious hacking campaign. Information in the form of Quicken data files, saved games of Sims 4, and genealogical data might be priceless to us, of course, but most dedicated hackers are after bigger game.

Unfortunately, the coverage that the media and Hollywood give to corporate and government attacks can make even Batman’s Aunt Harriet more than a little paranoid. It’s not really necessary to consider the FBI or Interpol every time you poke your Mac’s power button. A few simple precautions (and a healthy dose of common sense) are all that’s required.

Interested in the technical side of computer security? Visit this great site on the web: the Gibson Research Corporation. There you’ll find the free online utility ShieldsUP!, which automatically tests how susceptible your Mac is to hacker attacks.