Why We Need Anti-Virus Software for Mac

I recently wrote a review of the excellent antivirus utility, ClamXav. I also read constant articles and hear constant debate about whether or not you need virus protection on the Mac. I used to be in the camp that says, "There are no viruses for Mac, so why use antivirus software?" But nowadays, I find myself in the other camp, the one that says, "Of course we need virus protection on the Mac, you idiot."

To be honest, I was never as cavalier as to suggest that no virus protection was ever needed on Macs. But we Mac folk are in an interesting predicament (though not as interesting as our Windows-using pals): Currently no viruses directly affect us, and antivirus software for Mac is, by and large, abhorrent. In fact, it is far more likely that your system will be adversly affected by antivirus software than it will by a virus. To wit, Norton Anti-Virus has frequently caused numerous problems on client Macintoshes I manage in my freelance duties. Moreover, many antivirus software packages install kernel extensions, which is the surest way to hose a system. Even Apple recommends against it to developers, citing kernel extensions as a last resort. I frankly don't understand why antivirus software would have need of kernel extensions, given that all it really needs to do is scan files and compare them against a list of known viruses, but apparently the Norton folks think this is important. And it's been wrecking people's systems.

So, the state of things being what they are, it's no surprise that Mac users just go, "Fuck this," and ignore the problem, or worse, deny it. I mean, what else is a poor Mac gal or fella to do?

Let me back up here and explain why I've switched camps. There are two reasons, actually. One, I work in a very heterogenous network, and I see the effect Windows viruses can have on our systems. And on our Windows admin. It's hellish. And it's a problem that, while I don't personally suffer from it, I certainly don't want to contribute to. Macs can and do spread viruses to other computers. I've seen it happen. At this point I could launch into a whole number about how we're all citizens of the internet, and how it's our responsibility to be good ones. But I won't. Instead I'll tell you my second reason for switching camps: I got a virus. Yep. Sure did. This virus (actually, I think it was a worm, but we'll treat all such programs as "viruses" for the purpose of this article) was passed to me, I believe, by a Windows user inside a Word document. Unfortunately, I needed this document, and I needed to send it back out to other Windows users. Fortunately, I had a trusty old copy of Norton Anti-Virus and an OS9-bootable system from which to do the repairs. But if I hadn't, I would not have been able to use the document. If my job had been dependent upon that document... Well, you can extrapolate. Unless you're planning on never sharing files with anyone other than Mac users -- ones who also only share files with other Mac users, by the way -- you do have to worry about viruses. Just not as much as Windows users. Here I like to paraphrase the AIDS prevention folks: When you're sharing files with someone, you're sharing files with everyone they've ever shared files with. And the internet is, like, one big, giant file-sharing orgy. Do you really want to be running around out there without a condom?

Me neither.

I don't want to get too much into the options. This is more an explaination of why we Mac kids do actually need some form of virus protection. But I will quickly tell you what I do, and why I've settled on my method. My method is the ounce of prevention method. I use ClamXav on my systems and do weekly scans. Also, using ClamXav's new "Sentry" feature, I have a few watch folders: my mail, my downloads folder, and any folder I might be sharing on my LAN. (Keep in mind here that ClamXav does not scan subfolders, for performance reasons.) This pretty much covers most of the bases. If you get ClamXav set up right, you should be in real good shape when it comes to detecting viruses. Unfortunately, ClamXav does not repair viruses. So if you already have one, or if, God forbid, one should squeak by, you'll need something to fix it. I'm lucky. I have my old OS9-Norton system. But these are becoming almost as rare as Mac viruses themselves. If you have a virus now, you should quarantine all instances of that puppy, go do some research, and find the least invasive, non-kernel extension installing antivirus repair software you can. If you can run it off the CD without installing anything, all the better. Otherwise, just wait. Yeah, you heard me. Wait. The chance that you'll get a virus is pretty slim, and it's quite likely that, by the time you do, any virus software you buy today will be out of date, obsolete, or just plain useless. So wait, and if a virus ever rears its ugly head on your system, then go buy something to fix it. Oh, I might also suggest that if the antivirus software does have to be installed on the system, you might want to use a spare firewire drive for the install, provided you have one, of course. I like to have a lean, bootable OSX system on a small firewire drive, install the antivirus software there, and boot from this drive when I have a problem. That keeps my primary boot drive clean of antivirus cruft.

So that's what I do. And that's what I think. And so far, it's worked pretty well. The only thing that kind of breaks my flow is when freelance clients freak out and install Norton AV on their systems without asking me about it first. Ever try to remove that shit? Holy Hell. Thank my lucky stars for this uninstall script, but until I found it, it was murder.

Okay, kids. Time to go put a helmet on that soldier.