The Benefits of NOT using Antivirus on your Mac

You read right: I’m recommending you not use antivirus software on your Mac. What may sound like a pretty crazy proposition at first – especially these days where Apple’s growing market share is starting to make the Mac more interesting for malware programmers – will make perfect sense once you really think about it. Suspend your scepticism for a moment and I’ll give you some arguments that will at least make you rethink installing antivirus software on your Mac.

To be quite clear: I practice what I preach here. In fact, I’ve been using computers since ca. 1991 and, except for a very short time somewhere back in the late nineties, I’ve never had any antivirus software on my machines whatsoever. And that includes Windows PCs, mind you. And you know what? The only virus I’ve ever had on any of my machines was a culprit called Dark Avenger, and I actually got infected by installing Space Quest V from legally purchased floppy disks.

Just to make sure that I hadn’t been infected (reading all the security warnings on the Web occasionally gets to me), I ran some antivirus software maybe once every one or two years. They never found anything.

Installing antivirus software and thinking you’re safe is like thinking an airbag will prevent you from getting killed.

Antivirus software is what I like to call “stupidity insurance”. Installing antivirus software on your Mac and thinking you’ll be safe is like saying, “Hey, I have 12 airbags in my car. What could possibly go wrong?” and driving 100 miles an hour on a wet country road without putting on your safety belt.

Sure, airbags and antivirus software protect us not only from our own misbehaviour, but also from the other people around us who are being stupid. But neither of them will compensate for you acting unresponsibly or being unalert.

Another thing to remember is that antivirus software only protects you from viruses. They can’t protect you from security flaws in your web browser and they have no way of preventing you from falling for a phishing scam. And antivirus programs themselves are often the cause for problems, too. Many of these programs access programs and files in real time, which can lead to problems with the programs that are “legally” accessing these files. It’s not uncommon for antivirus software to be the source of system error messages.

Not to mention that antivirus software is always one, maybe two steps behind the virus programmers. So it can only protect your Mac from “old” malware, while new viruses are being released into the wild daily. Many are written so that they “mutate”, which means they change their appearance on their own and make it very hard for antivirus software to detect them.

Viruses are not the problem, they’re merely a symptom.

But the main problem with antivirus software is that it tries to solve a problem that should have been taken care of earlier. Viruses on your computer, Mac or Windows, are not the problem, they’re merely a symptom. They’re a symptom that something has gone wrong in your line of defence. And it’s your line of defence you need to take care of before you resort to any kind of damage control.

If you want to protect yourself and your Mac from security threats such as viruses, phishing scams or browser exploits, here’s my recommendation:

Keeping yourself and your Mac out of harm’s way

  • Stay away from “bad neighbourhoods” on the Web. Don’t make me explain, you know what I mean.
  • If you like downloading, ahem, Linux distros from torrents, be really careful what you install on your Mac. It’s easy for anyone to upload malware to these streams and claim they’re some software or a media file.
  • If you browse the Web with Firefox, consider installing NoScript. Firefox is generally a pretty secure browser, but every now and then a Javascript exploit pops up and NoScript can protect you.
  • Keep your system up to date. Run Software Update automatically and install at least all updates that are said to be critical to security. This includes updates to Safari, too.
  • Before you click a link in an email message, be really, really sure where it leads. Hover your mouse cursor over a link and wait for the tooltip to appear. If a link suggests it’s leading to ebay.com, but the domain actually ends in .hk, .ru or something else, don’t click the link!
  • When logging in to any site, be it online banking, ebay, Amazon or any other site, make absolutely sure that the address bar in your browser shows the correct address. For example, ebay.com always has a URL similar to http://cgi.ebay.com/… or http://my.ebay.com/… Do not enter your login information into a site that looks like ebay but the URL is something like http://www.22gd5ebay.com/… or http://www.bigbadguy.ru/ebay.com/…
  • Activate the software firewall in Mac OS: Open System Preferences → Security → Firewall and select at least Allow only essential services. If you connect to the Internet via a hardware router with an integrated firewall – which is, in my opinion the better choice – you can usually leave the software firewall off.
  • Don’t store sensitive data such as passwords, account numbers, SSID etc. unencrypted on your Mac. Use a software like 1Password to store it.
  • Install Little Snitch on your Mac. It costs a couple of bucks, but it’s well worth it. It will inform you of any outgoing connection from your Mac to the Internet and you can allow the connection either always or on a case-by-case basis and you can select which types of connections you want to allow. This will prevent any malware from “phoning home” or sending your data to a thief, should your Mac get infected.

Re-installing your Mac OS

You think all that is a lot of work? Then try re-installing your Mac and all your software and, if you really hit the jackpot, regaining lost data and personal information. A thousand to one that you’ll enjoy the steps listed above more than that.

To sum it up: The benefits of NOT using antivirus software on your Mac are:

  • You won’t have a false sense of security by thinking that antivirus software will protect you from any evildoers.
  • You’ll be in control of the security of your Mac.
  • You won’t run into any trouble caused by the antivirus software itself.

Remember, the best protection from any malware is your brain. Be alert, think about every link you click and be really, really careful where you get the software you install on your Mac from.