Macs are safer than Windows: Questioning the numbers

by Neil Lee

As usual, the mac media is all over a recently published Consumer Reports article that reports the already well-known chestnut that "Macs are safer than Windows PCs":

On Windows PCs:

In a nationally representative survey of more than 3,200 households with at-home Internet access, one-third said a virus or spyware caused serious problems with their computer systems and/or financial losses within the past two years.

Half the respondents reported a spyware infection in the past six months. Of those, 18 percent said the infection was so bad they had to erase their hard drives. To avoid spyware, 51 percent of all online users reported being more careful visiting Web sites, and 38 percent said they download free programs less frequently.

The incredible vulnerability of Windows is no longer news (which is sad in itself). What's interesting is when the report mentions Macs:

"Macs are safer than Windows PCs for some online hazards. Only 20 percent of Mac owners surveyed reported detecting a virus in the past two years, compared with 66 percent of Windows PC owners. Just 8 percent of Mac users reported a spyware infection in the last six months vs. 54 percent of Windows PC users." (emphasis mine)

This report is still very positive for Macs, but the numbers quoted are very surprising.

First of all, how many Mac users were actually surveyed? 20% reporting "viruses in the past two years" seems very, very high. That's one in every five Mac users - a staggering number of infections, if accurate. The significance of the number changes, however, if there was only 100 mac users surveyed (and potentially an inaccurate sampling).

I'd also be curious what Consumer Reports considers as "detecting a virus" - does this mean that the user actually had an infected system, or that their virus software only found a virus (say, in an attachment in an email)?

The 8% reporting spyware is even more surprising. The Mac community is extremely vocal, and I can't remember a single time that I've read on any of the sites I frequent (such as Macintouch, Macfixit, Macworld, and many others - I have no life) reporting spyware infections.

Just because it hasn't been reported online, though, doesn't mean that it hasn't happened. Still, I've yet to see evidence (anecdotal or empirical) that there are spyware out there that actually run on Macs.

In general, this report is still good news for Macs and for Mac owners, but I think getting the numbers right is critical. The fact that Macs are, for the most part, easier to use and much safer than Windows PCs is a key selling point and it's worth getting the message out as accurately as possible.

I'd love to see a definitive survey done with a huge sample of users (numbering in the hundreds of thousands, if that's realistic) that gets down with irrefutable numbers how safe Macs and Windows PCs really are. With our governments, financial industries, and the infrastructure that keeps the important bits (pardon the pun) of our lives running relying on computers more and more, information like this isn't just helpful consumer advice any more; it's part of the common good.

Have you ever been infected with spyware or a virus on Mac OS X? If so, please post in the comments the circumstances and how you fixed the issue.


2005-08-16 09:44:40
I wondered the same thing
The datasheet for Virex for Macintosh says:

McAfee Virex offers realtime prevention of Macintosh, PC,
and Unix viruses, worms, Trojans, and other malicious code.

Note that Consumer Reports only asked computer users if they had detected a virus. What do you want to bet that about 20% of Mac users use anti-virus software, and of those almost all of them detected a Windows virus within the past two years?

2005-08-16 10:06:31
One reason...
I'd guess that the 20 percent number is the fraction of Mac users that have anti-virus software installed. The software probably reports detections, just to appear that the user hasn't thrown away money by buying it.
2005-08-16 10:20:04
How to detect spyware on Mac OS X?
How does one go about detecting spyware on Mac OS X?

Are there any scanners available?

- vineet

2005-08-16 11:53:48
There was some talk about this in another forum recently (can't remember which one) and one possible reason for this presented was AOL's "feature" of notifying the deletion of mails containing Windows viruses. Basically, Mac AOL users may be reporting a number of false positives.
2005-08-16 12:50:22
How to detect spyware on Mac OS X?
Little Snitch monitors all outgoing communications and will (by default) alert you to any that aren't in the registered allowed list that's bundled with the software.

It's highly configurable, so you can allow and deny access at your whim. It's fascinating to see how many application authors program their apps to "phone home" upon launch without the user being notified.

Little Snitch's functionality is similar to ZoneAlarm's program control monitor, which doesn't list itself as spyware protection, so I don't know whether Little Snitch really counts.
2005-08-16 12:50:53
A generally "we've heard this before" article with some bogosities
To deviate slightly in topic, I read the same set of articles in Consumer Reports and noted other outright errors concernng Macs; serious eonugh errors that I considered writing their editor until I realized it would be pointless.

Here's the most bogus piece of the article:

It's too soon, to know, however,whethernew Macs will be more vulnerable to attack once Apple begins its switch to Intel processors, the type used in Windows PCs, next year. {Excess commas theirs}

By that logic, Linux should be as plagued with vuruses as Wondows, and we all know that ain't the case. It's the software, stupid!

Concerning spyware, I visited a website that automatically downloaded an .exe file; it downloaded and then sat there unable to execute. I just deleted it and went on. Did that count as a spyware attack? It was a dud on my Mac.

For the Windows world they suggest IE security settings to make; they never suggest ditching IE (or at least as much as you can) in favor of a more secure browser.

In balance, the article has good, but standard advice concerning phishing, use of firewalls, not buying spam-advertised products etc. But it still gave me the impression the Consumer Reports is better at testing toasters than technology.
2005-08-16 13:14:52
Viruses other than OS level
People who open infected Microsoft Office documents can infect other Office documents. That still counts, even though the virus can be controlled by disabling startup Visual Basic scripts. And even if you didn't open it, or run the startup script, it would still be there to be detected and removed by some virus software. The OS X system is not vulnerable, but Microsoft Office running on OS X is.
2005-08-16 13:30:07
Viruses other than OS level
That's a good point, though I think the actual effects of the vast majority of these viruses would have no effect on a Mac. Visual Basic does run on a Mac, but none of the actual things targeted by a virus are (such as the location of the global address book that many virii used to spread), nor does Visual Basic on a Mac have the access that it does on a Windows machine.

The entire file system and important file locations are also different, so I highly doubt that any Visual Basic virus could run as the author expected on a Mac. That said, my VB-fu isn't that great, so if someone else knows better, please set me straight.

2005-08-16 15:59:52
Viruses other than OS level
VB apps written for Windows might not work on Macs, but malicious people can target Macs with their own VB apps. I don't think the people playing with VB overlap too mych with Macs though. :)

I'm not terribly concerned about it, although it felt kinda icky to turn on Office macros to work on The Learning Perl Study Guide.

2005-08-16 18:26:13
On Viruses and Spyware
The answers my friend are blowin' in the wind, the answers are blowin' in the wind...

Yes, Virex 7.7 beta from McAfee and ClamXav both find bad-nasties, So does Internet Cleanup from Allume.

Does what they find affect Macs directly? So far no. Oh, and turn off macros for MS office.

We have reviewed these on our site. Go there and search on the topics. Or go to our Blog and look at the Security category. And yes, there is a spyware package that can be used on Macs named Spector, and there are data loggers that can also be used on Macs. Internet Cleanup goes through about 12 items in its search process. ClamXav can even find rootkits and eradicate them. Finding does not necessarily mena affecting.

Oh, and many of us also use VPC7 that is affected. Consumer Reports doesn't distinguish that maybe 20% possibly use VPC7 that gets hammered with PC malware. Or that maybe only 20% of Mac users even bother to buy anti-malware packages.

More at

2005-08-17 10:13:20
Macs, like Amigas, will always be "safer"
How many people creating viruses, malware, etc., for fun or profit are going to bother going after 2% of the market?
2005-08-17 11:38:37
macs and viruses
Macintouch has reported a couple of cases of people who have found "opener" hacks on their Macs. It's not clear how the openers were installed--it might have been by someone with physical access to the machine.

I wonder about those Mac users reporting viruses--I wonder how technically sophisticated they are. I can imagine the following scenario: Joe Macintosh is victim of a "Joe Job" (where a spammer uses your e-mail address as the return address for one of their delightful missives). The spam in question contained a virus. An automatic virus detector somewhere in the mail path detects this, and sends a message to Joe Macintosh that he's transmitting a virus; Joe thinks "wow, I've got a virus!" and mentions that to Consumer Reports.

2005-08-17 22:32:56
One reason...
"I'd guess that the 20 percent number is the fraction of Mac users that have anti-virus software installed. The software probably reports detections, just to appear that the user hasn't thrown away money by buying it."

Funny, a couple of months ago, Macworld magazine ran an article basically saying that there had been no reports of OS X viruses from users. That same issue also had reviews of three antivirus programs, each costing about $60, which were all given three or three-and-a-half out of four "mice," ostensibly indicating a "good program." Nowhere in the reviews did they ever say exactly what viruses the programs protected you from.

So, I wrote a letter to the editor, asking, "So what, exactly, do I get for my $60 for these programs?" The editor actually wrote back and said they wanted to publish my letter, with some, uh, "edits," which distorted my point, so I had to write back and tell them that they couldn't publish the letter unless it ran as I originally wrote it. Which it did, but they still didn't answer the question.

It's a scam, pure and simple.

2005-08-20 00:59:03
Misinterpreted perhaps?
"Only 20 percent of Mac owners surveyed reported detecting a virus in the past two years, compared with 66 percent of Windows PC owners. Just 8 percent of Mac users reported a spyware infection in the last six months vs. 54 percent of Windows PC users."

Did they happen to mention whether the viruses/spyware infections they received were on their Macs?

2006-03-17 14:50:03
Macs are safer than PCs: Questioning the numbers -
I've never actually been infected with a virus on the Mac. One time, at College, the typical pc computer tech accused my computer of distributing some sort of virus, "causing" the network to stall. Obviously he was wrong and it was some sort of router issue.