Which is More Se­cure: Mac or PC?

Con­sid­er­ing that the risk land­scape has changed tremen­dously in the last few years, per­haps that’s the wrong ques­tion to ask.

HWM (Singapore) - - Think - By Ng Chong Seng

“As the Mac gets more pop­u­lar, both at home and the workplace, “se­cu­rity through mi­nor­ity” won’t last long”

Every once in a while, I’d have peo­ple ask­ing me the ques­tion “Is it true that Mac is more se­cure than PC?” And every time, I gave a one-word “yes” in or­der to quickly move on from the topic, but re­gret­ted shortly af­ter­wards for sound­ing ip­pant and not of­fer­ing a more thought­ful an­swer.

I’d like to re­deem my­self here.

When one asks whether the Mac or PC is more se­cure, he or she is ac­tu­ally ask­ing which op­er­at­ing sys­tem is more se­cure: Mac OS or Win­dows.

The an­swer isn’t all that clear-cut, un­for­tu­nately. For a long while, the Mac has been as­sumed to be more se­cure than the PC, not be­cause it is vastly safer by de­sign, but be­cause with a 2 to 3% mar­ket share, it’s much less likely to be tar­geted. Se­cu­rity ex­pects I’ve spo­ken to be­fore all stressed to me that cy­ber­crim­i­nals are ei­ther in for the money or the may­hem, or both, and they tar­get Win­dows not be­cause they don’t like Mi­crosoft, but be­cause its way larger in­stall base ef­fec­tively guar­an­tees bet­ter re­turns. It’s just busi­ness, so to speak.

Also, con­sider this: if you were a hacker and want to in­fect tons and tons of com­put­ers to build a bot­net to, say, send spam, would you tar­get Macs or Win­dows ma­chines? Of­ten times, that’s not per­sonal ei­ther.

But as the Mac gets more pop­u­lar, both at home and the workplace, “se­cu­rity through mi­nor­ity” won’t last long. KeRanger, Xa­gent, MacDown­loader, OSX/Dok are some well-doc­u­mented Mac mal­ware that have sur­faced in re­cent months, and while they didn’t get as many head­lines as the Wan­naCry ran­somware that tar­geted Win­dows ma­chines, let’s all stop telling our friends and fam­ily that the Mac is im­mune to viruses and mal­ware. Be­cause it isn’t.

Is there’s any­thing unique about MacOS (née Mac OS X) that makes it in­her­ently more se­cure than Win­dows? Well, one can point that

the for­mer is based on Unix, and that its sepa­ra­tion of data and ex­e­cuta­bles makes for a more se­cure en­vi­ron­ment, ver­sus (past) Win­dows that stored les all over the place.

Win­dows large code base and its leg­endary rep­u­ta­tion of main­tain­ing legacy com­pat­i­bil­ity of­ten work against it, too. With so much hard­ware and soft­ware (Win­dows has tons of in­de­pen­dent soft­ware ven­dors), in­clud­ing driv­ers, Win­dows has a larger “at­tack sur­face” than MacOS. Win­dows has got­ten a lot bet­ter since Win­dows 7, and Mi­crosoft con­tin­ues to in­vest and in­no­vate to for­tify the OS, but in my opin­ion, it’s near im­pos­si­ble to do per­fect soft­ware test­ing for some­thing as com­plex as Win­dows.

Most peo­ple won’t know it, but both Ap­ple and Mi­crosoft go to great lengths to pro­tect their users from ma­li­cious soft­ware. XPro­tect is a built-in mal­ware-scan­ning tool for the Mac that most users don’t know about, be­cause it works in­vis­i­bly in the back­ground and doesn’t need any man­ual congu­ra­tion.

Mac also has Gate­keeper, which blocks apps that aren’t prop­erly signed or ap­proved by Ap­ple un­less you ex­plic­itly over­ride the rec­om­men­da­tions. Other se­cu­rity mea­sures in­clude a built-in re­wall; anti-phish­ing tech in the Sa­fari browser; app and plug-in sand­box­ing; and FileVault 2, which uses XTS-AES 128 en­cryp­tion so that crim­i­nals can’t do any­thing with your data even if they get your ma­chine.

The cur­rent ver­sion of Win­dows, Win­dows 10, also of­fers plenty of se­cu­rity fea­tures to mit­i­gate threats. There’s Win­dows De­fender SmartScreen that checks the rep­u­ta­tion of a down­loaded app against a list that Mi­crosoft main­tains; Cre­den­tial Guard that uses vir­tu­al­iza­tion-based tech­niques to pre­vent at­tack­ers from gain­ing priv­i­leged ac­cess; De­vice Guard that helps keep a de­vice from run­ning un­trusted apps; Win­dows De­fender An­tivirus that now uses ma­chine learn­ing for anti-mal­ware pro­tec­tion; and UEFI Se­cure Boot that pro­tects the sys­tem from bootk­its and rootk­its - just to name a few.

If there’s only one ad­vice that I can im­part to both Mac and PC users, it’s that un­less you’re in a man­aged desk­top en­vi­ron­ment, you shouldn’t dis­able au­to­matic OS up­dates. This is ar­guably your rst line of de­fence. If you’re of­ten in­ter­rupted by up­date prompts, you should look into sched­ul­ing up­dates to hap­pen dur­ing hours when you aren’t working on your com­puter. The same goes for your an­tivirus/ in­ter­net se­cu­rity soft­ware.

Which brings me to my nal point: users should own some of the re­spon­si­bil­ity, too. The fact is that to­day’s threats are mov­ing away from tra­di­tional viruses to web­based at­tacks, like phish­ing. Un­like in the past, OSes aren’t the only tar­gets of con­sumer-tar­geted at­tacks; they now span email, apps, and so­cial me­dia. And last I heard, so­cial en­gi­neer­ing is plat­form ag­nos­tic.

In short, no OS is ever go­ing to be se­cure enough for a user that down­loads ran­dom driv­ers, clicks on every URL, or opens every at­tach­ment that comes his or her way.

You may not know it, but you’ve al­ways been the weak­est link.

“The cur­rent ver­sion of Win­dows, Win­dows 10, also o ers plenty of se­cu­rity fea­tures to mi gate threats.”

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