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Does Sophos' Switch Argument Hold Water? 249

Wednesday's press-release-borne message from security firm Sophos that the best way for Windows users to compute untroubled (or less troubled) by malware is to switch to Mac OS X drew more than 500 comments; read on for the Backslash summary of the conversation.

Several readers pointed suspicious fingers at Sophos' motive for issuing the message in the first place; no one can call a company whose products are meant to offer "protection from viruses, Trojans, worms, spyware and spam" a disinterested party in evaluating OSes. Techguy666, for instance, writes "We use Sophos at our workplace. I also use other antivirus and antispyware — often to clean up the crap that Sophos doesn't find. Speaking as someone who's familiar with Sophos, I think it's curious that Sophos is telling home users to consider buying Macs. Go to Sophos' website and try to find a home user product ... They don't seem to promote any. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would think this is a warning shot aimed at Microsoft because of MS's sudden focus on security, to the detriment of companies such as Sophos; send Microsoft's small clientele to the enemy &mdash it's no skin off of Sophos' corporate nose. ... They're talking to an audience that they don't serve or interact with."

(To this, an anonymous reader writes "Sophos has a number of fat contracts with institutes of higher learning, like mine. Every student has access to a fully licensed copy of Sophos if they so choose — available for Windows 98-XP, Linux, and OS X.")

A subtler gripe comes from Kope, who calls the metrics used by Sophos "misleading," and writes that "[s]aying that the most common malware only effects Windows, therefore Macs are more secure is simply bad reasoning. ... I'm sure that 'out of the box' Macs are better. But it's not 'out of the box' that I care about. My concern is level of security during actual operation. I have no problem believing that Macs are more resistant to malware, but this measure doesn't show that to necessarily be the case."

ZachPruckowski agrees that Sophos's claim is based on a "dumb study," but not that there's an easy line to draw between out-of-box and long-term use: "For 75 percent of the world, 'out-of-the-box' == 'during actual operation.' It's those people who get infected by malware. Don't expect users to do any extra work beyond going straight to Office or IE or their email app. Thus, 'out-of-the-box' is a pretty important state."

Whatever the company's reason for issuing what many Slashdot readers would consider the farthest thing from a discovery, no reader's comments seemed to cast doubt on the conventional wisdom that Mac users are at present far safer from malware than are typical Windows users — the reasons behind that situation, though, are hotly contested. One version of the story is that OS X, by dint of its design (including UNIX-style multi-user orientation and compartmentalization generally) simply can't help being more resistant to viruses and spyware; Windows intentional integration of operating system components has let security flaws in one small part of the operating system (such as Internet Explorer or Outlook) become flaws in all the others, too.

Reader cwgmpls, for instance, doesn't buy the argument that OS X is safe only because it's more obscure than are the various versions of Windows.

"Even if OS X is only 5% of all PCs in the world, surely there are a good number of hackers out there who would love to release an OS X virus into the wild, just to prove it can be done. Besides, the total number of OS X installs today is certainly greater than the total number of Windows installs that existed at the time the first Windows virus was released.

Most hackers don't need a huge number of installs to stroke their ego. The opportunity to prove that OS X is just as vulnerable as Windows should be more than enough to motivate someone to release an OS X virus into the wild. Yet no one has done it.

There must be more at work here than OS X's small market share. OS X must be inherently more secure than Windows to not have a virus in the wild six years after its release. Certainly there are enough hackers out there who would love to show their prowess by writing an OS X virus, even for the relatively small number of OS X installs that exist; but nobody has been able to do it yet."

Several readers assert that the real reason has little to do with the hardware or the software used by the rival camps, and is mostly an issue of user education and sophistication. Typifying this argument is reader WombatControl's (unsurprisingly contested) conclusion that "the Mac userbase tends to be a lot more savvy than the Windows userbase." His argument, in short:

"I'd hazard a guess that the vast majority of Windows malware comes not from the inherent insecurity of the Windows platform but from users doing dumb things. Someone who installs some stupid little weather applet and gets infected with spyware got infected not because of a flaw in the system, but because they didn't bother to determine whether or not the source of their software was credible or not. Even if they got a prompt like Vista and OS X present they'll still authorize the program. There's no patch that can be applied to a system to prevent stupid users from mucking it up. ...

Macs are more secure because Mac users have a much tougher stance towards crapware. Mac users tend to be much more technically proficient than the average. If that "zero-tolerance" policy changes, I'm not so sure we'll see an increase in the amount of malware targeting Macs.

OS X does a great job of providing technical barriers against malware, but nothing can prevent malware that uses social engineering to do its work. Mac users are safer because they choose to be - but if you get a group of users who have no awareness of security and will blindly execute anything they come across, even if the system specifically tells them not to, that could change very quickly."

Several Windows users agreed with the thrust of this argument — namely, that no system is truly safe from a determined, malicious attacker unless users (or their trustworthy proxies) head off not just automated attacks, but social-engineering tricks that really have little to do with the OS a user is interacting with. Their approach is based on heading off malware.

Readers like snwod (a sometimes user of Mac, Linux, and Windows) offered a level-headed synopsis of this approach: "I run a good firewall/anti-virus combo along with using Ad-aware and the rest. I don't click on banner adds and I don't install strange pop-up programs. Pretty simple really." Result? "[I] haven't had a virus or malware problem in years."

To this line of reasoning, though, aphor says "My grandma's Mac isn't infected, and she clicks on everything! I'm calling bullshit. Please produce the infected Mac. One synthetic test does not make a real-world case. I run the system updater on my grandma's Mac about 3-4 times a year. That's probably 1/10th (liberal estimate) of the exposed vulnerability that a [Windows] box has."

Even if sophisticated trickery might fool any user, Savage-Rabbit thinks avoiding mechanically the more widespread script-kiddy attacks is nothing to sneeze at: "I bet there still is a fair number of Windows users who envy the Mac zealots for not having to waste their time pruning Norton/Panda/Macaffee/etc... anti-malware suites with monotonous regularity never mind the endless nag screens these anti-malware suites throw at you."

The status quo has a way of not staying that way in the long term, though, and reader spyrochaete contributed one of the several (and sane) cautions against hubris on the part of OS X users, though the same logic applies to Linux and other systems whose security may be real and considerable but is grounded in part on being a smaller target for online vandals and thieves than is Windows. As he writes, "They said the same thing about Firefox, but that's starting to change. Mozilla is fixing holes all the time and I'm starting to see ads that get through Adblock (stupid Mediaplex). This is just an article about security through obscurity — the best kind of security according to too many Apple fans I've talked to. ... Faith in obscurity means you'll be totally unprepared when disaster strikes."


Thanks to all who took part in the discussion, especially those readers quoted above.
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Does Sophos' Switch Argument Hold Water?

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