One of the selling points of Apple Inc.’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) Mac computers has always been their relative security. PCs running Microsoft Corporation’s (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows operating system have always been more vulnerable to viruses and other malware than Apple’s macOS. However, McAfee, Inc., a leading computer security company, just released its latest threats report showing total macOS malware instances continue to grow at a rapid pace.
While they may have ignored Macs in the past, criminals are increasingly targeting AAPL’s computers. The only good news on that front for Apple and Mac owners is that most of the action has been in relatively harmless adware.
McAfee Threat Report Shows Big Increase in Mac Malware
McAfee is one of the world’s leading computer security companies, and is largely owned by Intel Corporation (NASDAQ:INTC), which holds a 49% stake. The company releases regular threat reports, where it lays out the current situation in terms of computer security threats.
AAPL had a little less cause to be smug when it comes to Mac security after McAfee released a report in April, noting that macOS malware instances grew by 744% in 2016. While the total instances among Mac users were dwarfed by what was happening in the Windows world, there were still some 460,000 instances of infected Macs detected. While most of that was adware — annoying (but otherwise harmless) code that injects advertising into web browsing — 2016 also saw some very serious Mac malware like KeRanger ransomeware.
The latest McAfee report says detected instances of macOS malware grew another 53% in the first quarter of 2017 alone, topping the 700,000-mark. Once again, McAfee spikes out a “glut of adware” as being behind the rapid increase in Mac Malware.
Does This Mean Mac Security Is Failing?
Apple has always made the most of its Mac security advantage compared to Windows PCs. The company repeatedly made the point that OS X (now macOS) was inherently more secure than Windows because of its Unix underpinnings. AAPL used to aggressively promote this security advantage on its website:
“It doesn’t get PC viruses. A Mac isn’t susceptible to the thousands of viruses plaguing windows-based computers. That’s thanks to built-in defenses in Mac OS X that keep you safe, without any work on your part.”
However, the Mac was never immune from malware and viruses. At least part of its advantage over Windows was the relatively smaller number of Macs out there.
Criminals didn’t put the same effort into developing and releasing macOS malware, because the potential payoff was so much smaller than hitting those billion+ Windows PCs.
With the exception of a few quarters, AAPL has managed to buck the trend of declining PC sales and grow its Mac sales. As a result, Macs have gained in marketshare, including a double-digit share in the U.S. computer market. Increased numbers have helped to paint a bigger target on Apple’s computers, and macOS malware has seen a corresponding rise.
Despite that growth in Mac malware, the number of cases of severe security issues for Macs remain relatively low. Even with the enormous growth in the past year, macOS malware instances remain just 1% of the 700 million instances reported on Windows PCs. Considering that almost all that malware on the Mac side was adware, and AAPL’s overall PC marketshare, that means Mac security continues to top that of Windows by a significant margin.
Apple is also taking Mac security much more seriously these days, including pushing out macOS security updates and building anti-phishing technology into its Safari web browser.
The latest McAfee computer security report shows that AAPL’s days of being able to count on the relatively low number of Macs on desktops to keep cyber criminals from targeting the platform are probably over. In a way, that’s a good thing — there are enough Macs out there to make Apple computers a worthwhile target. But it also shows that Mac malware is a bigger threat than ever.
So far, Apple’s increased Mac security measures have paid off, but clearly the company — and Mac users — can no longer get away with being complacent.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.