Virenscanner for Mac or Iphone

published : 2017-05-29 changed: 2017-08-10

category: security

tags: virus security

As some of my readers are not that good in reading and understanding German, I'll try to write some of my posts, which might be interesting in english also. I hope everything is understandable so far emoji people:smirk - This is not a translation, just a rewrite in English. Lets start with the last post about Anti-Virus Software

Anti-Virus software on the Mac or iPhone?

People are more and more concerned about viruses. Also Mac users start to worry about that threat. So, is it neccessary to install anti-virus software on the mac? I was asked that question several times lately...

First of all, this question it totally justified. Everyone should harden his computers and phones as far as he feels safe. Actually, more than a feeling would installing an anti virus software on the mac not produce. As of now there is a handfull of harmful software known for the mac, all of them will be filtered by macs own security mechanisms and thus are not really a thread anymore.

At the moment the Mac is safe - but soon...

"Soon it will be very bad for Mac users. Viruses will come..."

I hear that every year. When the new market share numbers are published and OSX gains. Then everybody tells me, that the marketshare is soon reaching some magic percentage when it will be so interesting for Virus-Programmers to write Viruses for Macs that ther will be a flood of malware. Or will there?

Of course, marketshare is definitely influencing the number of malware for a certain system. But in addition to that, you should take the necessary effort and feasibility into account. And the use... (in terms of malware: what could I gain? Keylogging? Botnet?)

I think, one should take both into account: Is the system easy to hack, it will be hacked, even if almost nobody is using it. Is the systems' marketshare not that high, but relatively simple to hack - it will be hacked! For example: the Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) is being attacked far more often than the marketshare leader Apache. When a system is very hard to hack, you need some good incentive to take the effort. Which could be the reason why there is no real virus for Linux or OSX.

And when I write "hacked" its more in a viruses term of use - not remote hacking of user accounts. And: it needs to be done more or less automatically by software. Otherwise there will be no real virus or worm. If somebody wants to hack a certain machine and has the knowledge, he can do it - depending on resource, effort and motivation ;-) I knew a hacker once, you could hire to hack the servers of an competitor for example. Those things are always possible. But this is almost always an administrative problem. There is no real protection against those guys. You can hack any machine you can physically touch - resources and motivation required, of course. Best example: the Jailbreaking of iOS! But if there is enough motivation, resources and knoledge, you're not really safe (see NSA & Co). So it's a question of effort: to hack the machine of a 14 year old student is definitely not as interesting as hacking the machine of a CEO of a big company or a politician.

Same thing is valid for malware and viruses: Malware is not developed for the fun of it (well, at least most of the time it's not). People want to make money with them. This is the only reason why there are Viruses! Maybe that's the reason why there is still the rumor, that actually the Anti-Virus-Software vendors pay some virus developers to spread viruses every once in a while. who knows... i cannot rule that out for sure. I met some Russian guys who claimed that to be true. If so, then I don't understand why there is so few malware for Linux and OSX. That would be a huge market for Anti-Virus-software vendors - millions of users, complete new market segment worth millions or billions of dollar.

I think, viruses are only developed to directly (data theft, credit card fraud etc) or indirectly (by spamming, using hacked machines as bots on the way to the real target, bot nets etc) to MAKE MONEY! And when money is involved: the effort and resources necessary to achieve that must be lower as the estimated revenue of course. So we are at the combination of effort and marketshare again. Marketshare influences the potential revenue (assuming that when more machines are hacked or affected by malware, more money is being made), efforts are the cots. And in some cases this is obviously not a positive figure...

malware in general

First of all, you need to distinguish between the different kinds of malware. In media and the heads of non-IT-guys all malware is named "Virus". But it's necessary to know what kind of software pest is out there in order to be able to protect yourself against those effectively.

The media and in the heads of non IT guys usually every malware is called a "virus". But in order to be able to protect yourself from those malware, it is important to know exactly what you're dealing with. You can classify three different kinds of malware: Viruses, Trojans and Worms - but there are some mixtures of those in the wild, like a virus which spreads like a worm - hence toe umbrella term "malware").

  • a virus is a little program, which reproduces itself on the system and does dort it's dirty stuff. most of the time, those viruses do exploit some security holes in order to get more privileges. If those privileges are gained, the virus will do things things, you usually do not want him to do - like deleting things, sending data do a server...
  • a trojan is most similar to a virus, but needs the users help to get installed. Usually it looks like some useful piece of software, a tool of some kind, but in addition to the funktionality you desire, it also installes some malware on the system. Usually the user is being asked, that the software needs more access - on OSX at least. But even if it does not seek privilege escalation, your data still is at risk. See wikipedia
  • a worm is a piece of malware, that is capable of spreading itself over the network (either locally or over the internet, see wikipedia). You can easily protect yourself against worms if you just unplug the network from your computer (and/or disable WiFi) or at least disable internet access. Sounds insane, but I myself was at some offices and departments, who do exactly that: They are unplugged from the internet in the whole building, only a certain room, which is specially secured, does have internet access - but not into the local network.
  • a new type of malware just got famouse with wanacry: ransomware these are usually some trojans which do then use bugs in the system to encrypt all data. And you only can decrypt it, if you send a couple of bitcoin to the author.
  • of course, there are mixrures of all those types. Usually there is a trojan, that acts like a virus on the system to gain root (or admin) access and uses that to spread himself over the network (worm).

on the Mac?

you always get such "warning messages" on the mac, if any malware wants to do something, that is out of the ordenary and does need system privileges. Exactly that happened a couple of months ago when there was a Trojan, who was installed using Java and a security issue therein. But still, the users were asked, that the software needs more privileges. And enough people just said "yes" to very question...

Please do not get me wrong, I do not want to deemphasize malware. It is out there, and does cause a lot of harm and costs. But you can be saved by trojans more or less by using common sense:

  • Why does the new calculator app need access to my contacts?
  • Why does my new notes app need admin permissions?
  • why does software XY ask about this or that permission?
  • is it clever to download tools from an untrusted source, especially if this source does offer cracks or exploits or something?

It is getting harder, if the trojan uses its newly gained privileges to hack the system itself, maybe even exploiting additional security issues there, so that the user is not being asked. Then a secure operating system architecture is helping to avoid those kind of things. Which is usually implemented by all unix OS.

Viruses and worms can not be avoided so easily hence those do exploit bugs in the system. But even then, Unix based systems are a bit better suited for that case than others.

This is according to a very strict separation between "System" and "Userprocesses" and between the users themselves. And, especially on OSX, we have Sandboxing as an additional means against those malwares. And the graphical user interface is not bound so tightly to the operating system kernel like it is in Windows NT for example.

But, overall, the Admin of the system is the one, really determining how secure a system is. He should know about the problems, his OS has and can take counter measures accordingly.

Malware on mobile devices

if we are talking about malware, whe should also have a closer look at mobile devices. Especially Smartphones and alike are often attaced, because they do have a lot of interesting data which are just worth a lot of money. Or you can just make money directly (e.g. by sending expensive SMS).

to "beak into" such a closed system, very often security relevant bugs are exploited. But sometimes just social engineering is also successful.

Usualy the user is than made to do some certain action, that does involve downloading something, that is installing a trojan on the system. or just opening the system that the attacer than can install some malware. Or you just "replace" an official app in the corresponding appstore.

Trojans on the smartphone usualy are masked as litte useful tools, like a flashlight app. But they then copy the addressbook and send out expensive short text messages, switch on video and audio for surveillance and so on.

It's hard to actually do something against that, because you do not know, ob the app, you install does something evil or not. Apple is trying to address this problem with the mandatory review process that all apps in the Appstore need to pass. All apps need to pass an automated and a manual check before anyone can download it. The apps are for example not allowed to use unofficial API (for accessing the internals of the os) and that the app does exactly what the description of the app tells the users it does.

This is no 100% protecion, but it is quite good (at least, i do not know any malware on the appstore right now).

But I would also name WhatsApp, Viber and alike as malware. Those do exaclty that, what a trojan would do. Grab data, upload them to a server. But here the user happily agrees and likes it.... but that is a different topic.

on iOS users are a bit more secure, than on andriod (if you do not jailbreak your iphone). Android is based on Unix, but some of the security mechanisms within uinx have bin "twisted". So there is a "kind of" Sandbox, just by creating a new user for every app on the device. So all processes are separated from each other. Sounds like a plan. But then you end up having problems with access to shared resources, like the SD-Card. This needs to be global readable!

Also the Security settings of apps can at the moment only take "all or nothing" (that did change in later versions, at least a bit). So you can either grant the app all the permissions, it wants. or No permission at all.

Problematic is, you need to set the permissions before actually using it. This makes it very easy for malware programmers, as people are used to just allow everything the app needs.

IN addition to that, Andriod apps do have an option to download code over the internet - this is forbidden in iOS. And there is a reason for it: How should any reviewer find out, that the code downloaded stays the same after the review? Today I download weather data, tomorrow some malware wich sends chareable short texts?

Another problem is, that there is not one single store for android but more like a quadrillion of them. Hence you can install software from almost any source onto your andriod device.

of course, every os does have bugs which might be used to execute good or evil code on the device. Hence there are updates on those OS on a regular basis, which should fix security relevant bugs and issues. with iOS you can be sure, that you get updates for your device and the OS on that for at least a couple of years. (current iOS run on 3 to 4 year old hardware still). With android it is not as easi to make such a statement as the support is strongly depending on the vendor. It might be, that support for devices not older than 1,5 years are stopped. Especially the cheap Android phones loos support quite ealry, which means there are still Android 2.x out there (and you actually still can buy new devices with that installed). Including all the bugs, that the old OS version had - which makes it quit interesting for malware authors.

in combination with the a bit more insecure system and the unsecure sources of software, this makes android a lot more prone to be hacked or infected by malware. And this makes it especially interesting for the bad guys out there.

This is leading to really rediculous things like virus scanners and firewalls for smartphones. read it here in German

You can say about apple, what you want, but the approach of the review of every app for the appstore is at least for the enduser a good thing (and by that I do not mean the power user who wants to have his own Version of the winterboard installed). Even if you are not allowed to do "all" with your phone - Normal users usually do not need to.

And the poweruser can jailbreak his iphone still - and if he knows what he is doing, it might be ok.

installed software as a gateway for malware

Unfortunately viruses, trojans or more generic malware, can use any bug of any software on the system, no matter if it is part of the OS or not. So a breach can be done via a 3rd party software. Like the "virus" that was infecting a couple of thousand macs through a installed java. In this case, the user again was asked several times(!) if he wants to grant admin permission to a java app - if you agree to that, your system is infected. If not - well, nothing happens. Common sense is a great "Intrusion Prevention System" here.

Of course, osx or any other operating system cannot avoid 3rd party software of doing some dubious things - especially, if the user agreed to it. But the software is only able to gain the permissions, what the software that was used as gateway has. An on OSX and iOS all applications run in a Sandbox with very limited permissions. If the app, a malware uses as gateway does not have admin permissions, well, the malware won't have it neither.

If all 3rd party software you run on your system only has minimal permissions, then a malware that would use those as a gateway would also have minimal permissions, and could not do too much harm (and could easily be removed).

But the thing is, just getting access as a normal user is not the goal of such a virus vendor - they want your machine to be part of a botnet in order to sell your computing power or to use it in the next DDOS-attack. Or just use it as spambot.

Also it is in the best interest of this virus vendor to make it as hard as possible to remove the software from the system. So everything needs to be burried deeply into the system files, where normaly no user takes a closer look at.

And this is usually only possible, if the malware would get admin permissions. It could use "privilege escalation" hacks in order to gain more permissions - best case, without the user knowing.

Usually, the user should be asked, if any process tries to gain more permissions, and the user may or may not agree to that (that happens every time, a process tires to do something outside of the sandbox). of course, that would be bad, as it would reduce the success of the virus. So virus vendors try a lot to avoid this kind of informing or asking the user.

on unix systems this is quite some hard task, or at least a lot harder as on windows OS see here or here. In almost all of the cases, on osx the user is informed about software that does do something strange.

But there is one thing, we should think about even more: if any software could be used as a gateway, I should reduce the number of programs on it to a minimum (especially those, with network functionality... which is almost any app nowadays). Especially I should keep software that runs with admin permissions do the absolute minimum - which is 0! Unfortunately, virus scanners and firewalls and such "security" software, need admin permissions to do their job. This is one of the reasons, why anti virus software is very often target of attacks from malware and viruses and end up as spreading the very thing they try to protect us from. (this has happened on windows machines)

Then, count in that a Anti-Virus software can only detect viruses, that are publicly known for a while, you actually would not increase the protection a lot by installing this on your machine.

Same thing goes for firewalls, which have their use on windows systems unfortunately, but not on unixes or osx. How come?

Well, on unix systems the network services are usually disabled, or not installed! so the visible footprint on the internet for such a machine is quite low.

Windows on the other hand, is depending on some network services to run, even if you do not actively use it. Disabling those serivces (and SMB is one of them - this was used by wannacry!) would affect the system in a bad way and some things would not run as expected see here.

Hence, if your system does have a minimal footprint - or attackable surface - you do not need a firewall.

Btw: do not mix up this local firewall, with a real IP-filter firewall that is installed in routers!

Virus scanners on servers

So, there is a lot that explains, why using virus scanners on the desktop (especially if it is a unix desktop) can have negative effects or at least no effect. So, you're probably fine without them...

But on servers, things look a bit different.

If i have clients are not well maintained or I just do not know (or just windows emoji people:smirk ), I want to avoid storing data on my server, that could infect them. So, even if the viruses do not infect my server, or my mac. The mails could be read by other clients, that might then be infected. So, be nice to your neighbors...

Do not forget, virus scanners do need some resources. And sometimes a lot of it (they monitor every access to/from the system, which in return can or will slow it down to a certain extend).

Security is not for free

Whatever you do, security comes with a cost. in "best" case, things get inconvenient to use, cause you need to do complex authentications or need to agree to a lot of popups that pop up every second (remember Windows Vista? emoji people:smirk )

in the worst case, there are errors because of the high complexity, or expensive bacause you need additional hardware (iris scanner, external firewalls, Application-level firewalls that scan data for viruses...) and still being inconvenient at the same time. And time consuming (those systems need to me maintained).

So, you need to decide, what level of security do you want, and what is senseable. The use of an Iris Scanner for the Bathroom is probably a bit over the top... don't you think?

common sense

the best weapon in our hands against malware still is the thing between the ears! Use it when surfing, when installing software. No software will ever be able to stop you from doing something stupid to your system.

So, it is not ok to feel to safe when being on a mac. This leads to sloppiness! Passwords for example, need to be real passwords. If the password could easily be guessed, why should a malware take the detour for hacking the system? It could just "enter" it and you lost your system to the bad guys....

I don't want you to get paranoid on that neither! Just keep your eyes open. When installing software, only do it from trusted sources. And, from time to time, have a closer look. There was malware available in the AppStore for a couple of days / weeks before apple removed it. Even the best system can be outwitted.

You should think about, which apps you use and which not. And even apps, that are not really malware per se, dan do harmful things - like whatsapp and viber. You should ask what is happening there! I mean, whatsapp is uploading the addressbook to facebooks servers and the people whos data you upload there, are not asked if they like that... just a small example...

Just remember: if the product is for free, then YOU are the product

There is no such thing as free beer!


I tried to be not tooo aniti microsoft - which is hard, because most of the security issues are only existing on windows systems. Unfortunately on windows the user needs to make it secure and stop it from doing harmful things.

Anti Virus software does lull in the user to make him feel safe, but most of them really have a louse detection rate. And really new viruses are not detected at all.

So, should you install anti virus software on a mac? You need to decide yourself, but I tend to "no, you should not". But there are valid reasons to see it differently. But I am not alone with my thoughts: see here and here.

But you definitely should distinguish between desktop and server, as you may be serving out data to windows machines as well, a virus scanner might be a useful thing.

Almost all I wrote here is valid for osx and for linux or other unixes. Right now, there is no know wide spread malware out for unix based systems, that I know of.

created Stephan Bösebeck (stephan)