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Little, if anything, gets Mac users more exercised than a mention of their favorite machine’s security problems. Despite the fact that security experts believe Macs to be much easier to exploit than Windows machines, Mac users simply trot out the old saw about there not being any virus attacks on Macs. Not only is that assertion demonstrably false, but it misses the point entirely: Virus attacks are not an indicator of the security of an operating system.

Viruses these days spread mostly through email with the explicit help of users who open attachments and click on malicious links. Time was, Microsoft Outlook was as insecure as a pimply teenager and virus authors constantly took advantage of it with viruses that spread automatically. But the game now is about owning the machine itself, not getting it to send out a few hundred emails. And when it comes to defending against those sophisticated attacks, Microsoft has far surpassed Apple.

Many Mac users are pinning their hopes for better security on the upcoming release of Snow Leopard, the latest version of Mac OS X due this summer. Word is that there will be better memory protection technology in Snow Leopard, but, Apple being Apple, few details have emerged. Microsoft also is working on a new version of Windows, known for now as Windows 7, which will include a comprehensive antimalware suite.

This has led to the inevitable debate over which new OS will be more secure, Snow Leopard or Windows 7. Writing on Dark Reading, analyst Rob Enderle puts his money on Windows 7, citing the antimalware suite as well as Microsoft’s long experience defending against difficult attacks. I agree with Enderle’s conclusion, but think that Snow Leopard or Windows 7 isn’t necessarily the right question to ask.

The real question is whether Snow Leopard will be more secure than the current version of OS X. Experts have predicted for some time now that attackers would begin targeting Macs more often when Apple secured a larger share of the market. That’s been happening slowly for the last couple of years, but the attacks haven’t spiked significantly, mainly because Windows dominates in the enterprise, which is where the most valuable data is. Ergo, that’s where the attackers go.

The reality is that very few users will switch to a Mac or from a Mac because of security. People love Macs for their usability and cool factor. But if Snow Leopard turns out to be a major security upgrade over the current versions, that’s an important step for Apple and its customers. The company has yet to show the outward commitment to security that Microsoft has, but delivering a new OS with much-improved security features will be a win, regardless of how Snow Leopard fares in comparison to Windows 7.

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Categories: Web Security