Your Mac doesn’t need a virus scanner… right?

For years, Macs have had the reputation of being robust machines. Apple fans like to say that they might be more expensive than their Windows counterparts, but in return they’ll last longer, are easier to use and don’t get nearly as many viruses.

While the first two statements are subjective and depend on what you need from your computer, the last is more easily testable. And in a time when devices get hijacked and sensitive data leaks on the regular, it might be worth re-evaluating that statement.

The truth is that, of course, the Mac isn’t immune to viruses, trojans, spyware or any other kind of scary software — it just does a better job protecting you by default.

Times have changed

The belief that Macs don’t get infected can be traced back to the mid-00s, when Apple was a much smaller player. Even though the sales of desktop computers and laptops have taken a hit in recent years due to the popularity of tablets and smartphones, Apple today holds 6.9% of the market — a significant increase from the 2.6% it held back in 2007.

A decade ago, it wasn’t hard for hackers to decide which platform to target with their attacks. Because the overwhelming majority of computer users was on Windows, most viruses were aimed at breaking into those machines — it simply wasn’t worth targeting the couple of people using a Mac.

Today, things have changed. Even though Windows is still four times more popular, there are now nearly 100 million active Mac users — a substantial audience for hackers. That’s why, along with its growing user base, Mac malware has steadily been on the rise. Even though a big part of this growth can be attributed to adware, it’s still a great time to talk about properly securing your Mac.

Keeping you safe, quietly

At first glance, it doesn’t look like your Mac is doing much to protect you from unwanted intruders, but in the background it’s working hard. MacOS comes with a bunch of security tools pre-installed, but different from Microsoft’s built-in Windows Defender, you never really notice them.

The most important part of this protection system is XProtect, a feature that was added in 2009 with Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. When opening an application you downloaded from the internet, it pops up a warning dialog to make you double-check the origins of the file. You’ve probably seen it appear from time to time.

However, when you try to open a file that’s been marked as malicious, it’ll show a different message offering to move it to the Trash while also reporting the malware to Apple in an effort to protect other users. The beauty of XProtect is that it’s nearly invisible — users don’t have to think about regularly scanning their computer or updating the list of known viruses, as it’s all done automatically in the background.

It also works in unison with Gatekeeper, a slightly more visible security measure. Its default behaviour limits macOS to only open applications downloaded from the App Store and identified developers, keeping you safe from shady apps that found their way onto your computer.

Apple’s set-up isn’t perfect, though. XProtect is a pretty basic antivirus — it only checks for a couple of files that are known to harm your device, nothing more. It’s mostly meant to put a stop a viral malware attack in its tracks before spreading to millions of Macs, not to save you from a one-off virus.

What you can do

Luckily, there are some great apps that add an extra layer of security to your MacBook or iMac. Malwarebytes and ClamXav are two stellar pieces of software that do a great job at actively protecting your device. But watch out — there’s also a couple of apps that say they’ll protect your Mac or make it run faster, but are actually harmful for your computer. MacKeeper is by far the worst culprit, so make sure you avoid it.

It’s hard to say if you really need a dedicated Mac antivirus. While stock macOS definitely has the edge over Windows, there’s no guarantee it’ll catch every virus forever. One thing you should always do, however, is keeping your Mac up to date by installing the latest software updates from the Mac App Store — they also include the latest security fixes. And it also wouldn’t hurt to check out these three simple tips to improve your digital security.