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Windows users aren't the only ones who should fear virus attacks

Mac computers and mobile devices - both previously thought to be immune to PC-style viruses - are seeing an increase in threats, Avast engineers told ITProPortal at the company’s Prague headquarters last week. The Czech security software firm, which counts some 160 million active PC, Mac and Android users among its customers, says it has seen an uptick in Mac- and Android-specific malware and lists many reasons for the increased attacks.

Macs have long been considered safer from malware than their Windows-based counterparts, with Apple itself using the phrase “It doesn’t get PC viruses” as a core, and effective, part of its marketing strategy. But the company seems to agree with the finding that Macs are being targeted more and more by malware creators. Earlier in June, the tech giant quietly replaced the virus-free rhetoric with the less easily contestable "Built to be safe," in essence acknowledging that its computers can be hit by malware.

But while Apple devices are not completely immune to viruses, they are considerably less susceptible. And those infections are likely to make your computer buggy, not delete swathes of data from your hard drive.

More than 600,000 Macs were affected by the Flashback (or Fakeflash) trojan earlier in 2012, which worked by tricking users into installing fake Adobe Flash updates. Apple was unprepared for the attack, issuing a fix over a month after the Java security hole had been patched by Oracle.

Macs aren’t simply superior machines, though - there are, historically, a many reasons why they have been less prone to PC-style viruses. First, it comes down to numbers: because they have been considerably pricier and, thus, have had a way smaller market share than machines running Windows, it was impractical for malware developers to write code targeting Macs. Second, the Unix-based operating system upon which Macs are built means viruses will attack a user's home directory but not the system at its core.

But as Apple has diversified its product line and nearly halved the price of its starting models, the company has seen an impressive growth in its market share - up to 16 per cent in 2011 from 3.5 per cent in 2006. This means that there are more developers creating malware that directly targets the Mac platform.

However, years of not worrying about viruses means Mac users continue to be blind to the rise in potential threats, no matter how minimal. Less than a third of Mac users are currently running anti-virus software, as compared to some 80 per cent of PC users. Out of the string of Macs I’ve owned since the first generation MacBook was released in 2006, not one has ever ran any anti-virus software. That may soon change.

Only a fraction of its customers are on the Mac platform, Avast has said. And that's in part because Apple's App Store regulations include clauses that go against the essence of anti-virus software - quick, continuous updates. The Mac App Store Review Guidelines outlaw applications that run on Kexts, which real-time virus-scanning software requires, and also prevents apps from delivering updates through any non-App store mechanisms, which is essential to quickly and efficiently delivering necessary updates against newly discovered infections. The result is that users depending on the App store, either for safety reasons or simply for lack of knowledge of other resources, are edged out.

That applies to iOS as well, though, paradoxically, that stringent, borderline-limiting policing of its app marketplace is the reason Apple's mobile OS has proved to be safe from malware.

As Android grows to become the world’s most popular operating system - with more than half of the US mobile market share as of the first quarter of 2012, up from 33 per cent at the same time last year - so, too, are Android threats ballooning.

While other mobile platforms are seeing a reduction in the number of malware threats targeting their users, Android devices are seeing a steep increase in attacks. In 2010, nine Android attacks were identified; in 2011, that figure mushroomed to 116, according to the Mobile Threat Report published by F Secure Labs.

Other researchers have indicated less alarming increases, but many agree that the trend will likely continue.

Unlike iOS, Android is vulnerable because its underlying principle is openness. “The problems are not technical,” insists Avast. "The problem is that Android is open, in comparison to iOS.”

That is, Google does not vet apps before allowing them to be sold in its official store; it also charges far lower fees. The limited number of hurdles that developers have to leap before gaining access to the Android app store makes it easier to distribute malware and even easier to avoid being caught for it.

In addition to Google's relatively lax position with regards to the official Google Play Store, there is a plethora of third-party app stores available for Android devices and those free-for-alls produce and spread viruses, too. If Google does not take any decisive action, it will only get worse, researchers have said.

But it’s not entirely the search giant’s fault. A major misconception about the power of smartphones is also to blame. “People don’t consider smartphones to be computers, but they are full-fledged computers,” said Avast.

The perception that mobile phones are not computers, and are therefore safe from viruses, leads users to engage in risky behaviour – things like downloading apps from unknown developers. Plus, only 30 per cent of Android devices have security software installed, as opposed to 80 per cent of computers.

"The most credible threat is coming from attackers who want to profit monetarily with their attacks. And right now we're seeing more profit-motivated malware than ever before," said Mikko Hyppönen, chief research officer for F Secure, the firm behind the quarterly Mobile Threat Report.

A recent attack that scammed Android users out of some £28,000 originated with replica apps purchased in a third-party app market – the apps, which purported to be free versions of popular games like Angry Birds and Assassin’s creed, took over infected devices and triggered the sending of premium rate text messages that cost £5 a piece.

“There is a wider issue here. There is malware out there which can gain total access to your phone," said Nitin Lachani, who researches threats for the watchdog PhonepayPlus.

Google's open platform is one reason that people flock to it - developers, in particular, have more freedom and can access many revenue streams. But it's a double-edged sword that also leaves Android customers vulnerable to attacks. In order to slow the on-going swell of attacks, Google should re-evaluate its handling of app store security. The company should explore new ways to straddle its open attitudes and the threats that inevitably come with it.