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5 Easy Ways to Infect Your Mac With Malware

Most Mac users don’t worry about security too much. Since the majority of malware targets Windows and macOS does a good job of keeping you safe out of the box, it’s easy to get complacent.

However, there are Mac security threats in the wild, and many of them come from user behaviors. Here are some dangerous practices than can infect your Mac with malicious software.

1. Download Dangerous or Pirated Software

Mac Gatekeeper Warning

The easiest way to mess up your system is to install sketchy Mac apps from random corners of the web.

In many cases, distributors of pirated software are only interested in making paid tools available for free. However, you can never fully trust cracked software, as there’s no telling what someone could have added into the package along the way. Indeed, many historical examples of macOS malware have arrived in pirated software downloads.

The safest places to install Mac apps are the Mac App Store and directly from trusted developers. By default, macOS’s Gatekeeper feature will only let you run apps from authorized developers, and displays a warning if you try to run an untrusted app.

Often, a legitimate developer might not have the money to register with Apple. You can step around this warning when that happens, but it’s important to make sure you trust the app when you do this.

2. Neglect App and macOS Updates

Mac-Up to Date

Everyone gets tired of seeing prompts to update their Mac or its software. But leaving your system unpatched makes you much more susceptible to attack.

Often, macOS system updates fix known vulnerabilities to keep you safe. If you continue to run an outdated version for months, you could fall victim to an attack that Apple has long since patched. Keeping yourself on the latest OS version means you’re one step ahead of malicious actors.

This is also the case for apps on your computer, especially your browser. There have been historical cases where popular Mac apps became infected with malware, such as the BitTorrent client Transmission in 2016. People who had the app on their system but never bothered to update it were open to attack for some time.

Thankfully, macOS makes it easy to update your apps and system. On macOS Mojave and newer, open the App Store and check the Updates tab to download new versions of App Store apps. You’ll find macOS software updates under System Preferences > Software Update.

For apps downloaded from other sources, you’ll need to open them and check for updates manually. You’ll usually find a Check for updates under the Help or app menu. At other times, you’ll find it in the app menu on the About [app] page.

3. Run Flash Player and Java

Once upon a time, browser plugins like Flash Player and Java were essential parts of the web, as they enabled you to enjoy multimedia content on all sorts of sites. However, with today’s web, these runtimes have fallen out of favor and barely anyone needs to use them.

Very few websites require Java or Flash now. Adobe plans to retire Flash at the end of 2020, and nearly all browsers have blocked Java for years. So you likely haven’t opened yourself up to attack in this way, but it’s still wise to check if you’re using these plugins and remove them if so.

To check, open System Preferences under the Apple menu. If you see an entry for Flash Player or Java, you have it installed.

Uninstalling Flash Player on Mac

Get rid of Flash Player by visiting Adobe’s Mac Flash Player uninstall page. Under the Download the Adobe Flash Player uninstaller header, click the download text next to Mac OS X, version 10.6 and later. Run the tool and it will remove Flash Player.

To complete uninstallation, you should also remove the following files from your user directory:

[USER]/Library/Preferences/Macromedia/Flash Player
[USER]/Library/Caches/Adobe/Flash Player

How to Remove Java From Your Mac

Removing Java from macOS is a bit more complicated than installing it. First, press Cmd + Space to launch Spotlight search and open Terminal. Once the Terminal window is open, paste each of the below commands one at a time and press Enter to run them:

sudo rm -fr /Library/internet Plug-Ins/JavaAppletPlugin.plugin
sudo rm -fr /Library/PreferencePanes/JavaControlPanel.prefPane
sudo rm -fr ~/Library/Application Support/Oracle/Java

We’ve looked further at why Java isn’t as big of a security risk nowadays

Why Java Is Less of a Security Risk Now on Windows, Mac, and Linux

Why Java Is Less of a Security Risk Now on Windows, Mac, and Linux

Most people know Java is insecure, but is it still the most dangerous piece of desktop software? Can it still cause problems on Windows, macOS and Linux? Let’s take a look and find out.
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if you’re interested.

4. Disable Your Mac’s Built-in Protections

SIP Protection in Terminal

As we mentioned earlier, macOS has several built-in layers of protection. One of these, System Integrity Protection (SIP), was introduced with OS X El Capitan. Essentially, SIP prevents users and programs from making changes

What Is SIP? macOS System Integrity Protection Explained

What Is SIP? macOS System Integrity Protection Explained

What is System Integrity Protection on your Mac? We explain what SIP does and how it affects macOS software.
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to core parts of the OS.

The addition of SIP stopped a lot of Mac deep system tweaks from working. As a result, you might look to disable SIP so you can use these old tools again. While it is possible to disable, doing so is a bad idea, as turning off SIP drastically reduces your security.

With no barrier to your protected OS files, malware could get in and wreak havoc. There are certain troubleshooting circumstances where you do need to turn off SIP for a short time, but you should always turn it back on right away to reduce risk to your system.

This is also the case for Gatekeeper, the feature that prevents unauthorized apps from running on your system. As mentioned, macOS allows you to allow apps only from the App Store, or from the App Store and identified developers. You can enable an Anywhere option using the Terminal, but this isn’t a good idea.

It’s smarter to run potentially untrusted apps on an as-needed basis so you don’t accidentally let something slip through.

5. Ignore Basic Signs of Danger

Just because you use a Mac doesn’t mean you should neglect to follow basic security practices. While it’s not as easy to accidentally pick up something nasty on a Mac, you should still keep an eye out for common forms of online attack

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Don’t click links or attachments in emails unless you’re sure you trust them. And avoid clicking fake links or popups that prompt you to install updates.

You should also know how to find malware on your Mac. If you think you might have done something that opened up your Mac to attack, run an anti-malware scan with a tool like Malwarebytes for Mac.

It’s also smart to be aware of widespread security vulnerabilities like Meltdown and Spectre, or the KRACK Wi-Fi exploit. While these don’t solely affect macOS, they still open Mac users up to attack in other ways.

It’s Up to You to Avoid macOS Malware

As we’ve seen, most Mac users will hopefully never run into a malware attack. The biggest threats to your system come from third-party software, so it’s vital to vet what you allow on your computer. A bit of proactive thought will help keep your system safe in the long run.

Think your Mac is already infected? Find out how to check if your Mac has a virus

3 Signs Your Mac Is Infected With a Virus (And How to Check)

3 Signs Your Mac Is Infected With a Virus (And How to Check)

If your Mac is acting weird, it could be infected with a virus. How can you check for a virus on your Mac? We’ll show you.
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5 Reasons Why Macs Are Less Likely to Get Malware Than Windows

The common wisdom states that Macs aren’t as susceptible to viruses as Windows PCs are. But why is this, exactly?

Of course, no system is flawless when it comes to security. It’s possible to get malware on a Mac just like any other computer. And while user habits definitely play a role, you’ll be glad to know your Mac is naturally protected from most threats. Let’s look at the ways macOS is built to resist viruses and other malware.

What Is Malware?

We often use the terms “malware” and “virus” interchangeably, but they refer to different types of attacks.

A proper computer virus damages your software by slowing it down, filling up the hard drive, or deleting important files. Viruses are hard to get rid of because they replicate themselves inside your operating system.

These days, most computers do a pretty good job of protecting against traditional viruses, but there are hosts of other software threats lurking in the shadows. The term malware refers to any malicious software, including:

  • Adware: Malicious programs that spawn advertisements
  • Spyware: Monitors your computer use and reports it to some entity
  • Worms: Malware that spreads to other computers over a network
  • Trojan horses: Dangerous programs that masquerade as useful ones
  • Computer viruses

What Protects a Mac From Malware Infections?

You might have heard the claim that viruses don’t affect Macs. This isn’t true, as Macs can certainly get viruses

3 Signs Your Mac Is Infected With a Virus (And How to Check)

3 Signs Your Mac Is Infected With a Virus (And How to Check)

If your Mac is acting weird, it could be infected with a virus. How can you check for a virus on your Mac? We’ll show you.
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. But we’ve all come across someone who’s used a Mac without antivirus software for years and never had a problem. You’ll struggle to find the same story from a Windows user.

There are a lot of factors at play here. Windows has made tremendous progress in terms of security in recent years, but macOS still benefits from unique advantages that make it less likely to get malware in the first place.

1. Apple Built macOS Using the Unix Platform

Computer programmer working on a Mac
Image Credit: welcomia/Depositphotos

When Microsoft developed Windows, it built the OS upon its own unique software platform called MS-DOS. In contrast, Apple developed macOS (or Mac OS X at the time) using Unix, an open-source platform that had already been in use for years.

Unix is renowned for its stability and security features, many of which aren’t present in MS-DOS. Windows hasn’t used MS-DOS as its basis since Windows XP, but many parts of its security and architecture today are left over from those old days.

Meanwhile, Unix is open-source and has been used by a range of different companies in the development of macOS, Linux, the PlayStation 4, and even the firmware for gadgets like your router.

There are lots of people looking to fix vulnerabilities in Unix so they can make their own products more secure. Your Mac benefits from this group effort, whereas Windows PCs are solely dependent on Microsoft’s architecture.

2. Gatekeeper Scans New Apps to Ensure They’re Safe

Gatekeeper blocking Signal app from opening on a Mac

If you’ve ever downloaded an app from outside the Mac App Store, you may have discovered you can’t open it after the download completes. This is due to a macOS security feature called Gatekeeper.

When you download new apps, Gatekeeper quarantines them and uses XProtect to scan the code for malware. If it finds any, Gatekeeper alerts you of the risk and doesn’t let you open the app. You can bypass Gatekeeper by holding Control and clicking an app, but you run the risk of infecting your Mac

5 Easy Ways to Infect Your Mac With Malware

5 Easy Ways to Infect Your Mac With Malware

You might think it’s pretty difficult to infect your Mac with malware, but there are always exceptions. Here are five ways you can get your computer dirty.
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when you do so.

Even if the XProtect scan comes back clean, Gatekeeper might reject your app if it doesn’t trust the developer. By default, your Mac only lets you install apps from the Mac App Store or “identified developers.” This allows apps like Dropbox, Evernote, or Microsoft Office while blocking lesser-known developers. This is an example of Apple’s infamous “walled garden” approach.

3. macOS Separates Apps With Sandboxes

Sandbox Illustration

macOS makes use of sandboxing to limit what apps can do. This is the practice of a software provider putting up virtual barriers around third-party apps to keep them from accessing other apps or system files on your machine.

It’s one of the reasons a Mac is less flexible than a Windows PC, but these restrictions come with the payoff of tightened security. Third-party applications have limited access to core system files, making it difficult for malware to cause serious damage if it gets past Gatekeeper.

Since macOS Catalina, Mac apps need to request permission for each part of the system they want to access. This includes categories like Files and Folders, Screen Recording, Camera, Photos, and more.

Go to System Preferences > Security & Privacy > Privacy to see what is and isn’t allowed; you can revoke access for anything you’re unsure about.

4. SIP Provides an Added Layer of Protection

Mac System files folder shown in Finder

The OS hides important system files on your Mac so you can’t accidentally damage or move them. But it also guards important files behind a hidden defense, called System Integrity Protection (SIP).

SIP (present on OS X El Capitan and newer) stops you or anyone else from editing the system files on your Mac, which are often a prime target for malware. This makes it trickier for malware to infiltrate your operating system and compromise the security or performance of your Mac.

Just like Gatekeeper, you can bypass SIP if you need to. But most reputable developers design their apps to work alongside SIP, so you shouldn’t need to. See our full explanation on System Integrity Protection

What Is SIP? macOS System Integrity Protection Explained

What Is SIP? macOS System Integrity Protection Explained

What is System Integrity Protection on your Mac? We explain what SIP does and how it affects macOS software.
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for more details.

5. There Are Still Far Fewer Macs Than Windows Computers

Computer bank with multiple Windows computers on desks
Image Credit: mishoo/Depositphotos

Although it doesn’t seem like a great defense, particularly since it’s outside of Apple’s control, your Mac is also protected by the fact that there are more Windows computers in the world than Macs. In fact, there are a lot more.

A virus designed to damage Windows doesn’t work against Macs. So criminal developers need to choose which platform they want to target. Since Windows is vastly more popular than macOS, it makes more sense to create Windows malware and attack a larger number of people.

This is exactly what happens. Fewer malware threats exist for the Mac because there’s far less to gain for people who create them. This principle, however flawed, is known as security through obscurity.

Do What You Can to Keep Your Mac Safe

The weakest link of any security system is the user. Your Mac does a great job at keeping malware away, but you can help it by exercising common sense as well. For example:

  • Keep your Mac up-to-date to benefit from the latest security patches.
  • Avoid opening email attachments or links from unknown senders.
  • Don’t bypass security features to install apps from untrustworthy sources.

For additional protection, you might also consider installing antivirus software. There are lots of bad options out there, so take a look at the best free antivirus software for your Mac

The 7 Best Truly Free Antivirus Software for Mac

The 7 Best Truly Free Antivirus Software for Mac

Viruses and security issues abound, even on Mac. It’s critical that you use a free antivirus for Mac, no matter how smart you are.
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to make sure you install something reputable.

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How Artificial Intelligence Will Shape the Future of Malware

As we move into the future, the prospect of AI-driven systems becomes more appealing. Artificial Intelligence will help us make decisions, power our smart cities, and—unfortunately—infect our computers with nasty strains of malware.

Let’s explore what the future of AI means for malware.

What Is AI in Malware?

When we use the term “AI-driven malware,” it’s easy to imagine a Terminator-style case of an AI “gone rogue” and causing havoc. In reality, a malicious AI-controlled program wouldn’t be sending robots back through time; it would be sneakier than that.

AI-driven malware is conventional malware altered via Artificial Intelligence to make it more effective. AI-driven malware can use its intelligence to infect computers faster or make attacks more efficient. Instead of being a “dumb” program that follows pre-set code, AI-driven malware can think for itself—to an extent.

How Does AI Enhance Malware?

There are several ways that Artificial Intelligence can enhance malware. Some of these methods are figurative, while some are tangible within the real world in some way.

Targeted Ransomware Demonstrated by DeepLocker

One of the scariest AI-driven malware examples is Deeplocker. Thankfully, IBM Research developed the malware as a proof-of-concept so you won’t find it in the wild.

The concept of DeepLocker was to demonstrate how AI can smuggle ransomware into a target device. Malware developers can do a “shotgun spread blast” against a company with ransomware, but there’s a high chance they won’t manage to infect the essential computers. As such, the alert may go up too soon for the malware to reach the most prominent targets.

DeepLocker was teleconferencing software that smuggled in a unique strain of WannaCry. It didn’t activate the payload, though; instead, it would merely perform its duties as a teleconferencing program.

As it did its job, it would scan the faces of the people that used it. Its goal was to infect a specific person’s computer, so it monitored everyone as they used the software. When it detected the target’s face, it would activate the payload and cause the PC to be locked down by WannaCry.

Adaptive Worms That Learn From Detection

One theoretical use of AI in malware is a worm that “remembers” every time an antivirus detects it. Once it knows what actions cause an antivirus to spot it, it then stops performing that action and finds another way to infect the PC.

This is particularly dangerous, as modern-day antivirus tends to run off of strict rules and definitions. That means all a worm needs to do is find a way in that doesn’t trip the alarm. Once it does, it can inform the other strains about the hole in the defense, so they can infect other PCs easier.

Independence From the Developer

Modern-day malware is quite “dumb;” it can’t think by itself or make decisions. It performs a series of tasks that the developer gave it before the infection happened. If the developer wants the software to do something new, they have to broadcast the next list of instructions to their malware.

This center of communication is called a “command and control” (C&C) server, and it has to be hidden very well. If the server is discovered, it could lead back to the hacker, often ending with arrests.

If the malware can think for itself, however, there is no need for a C&C server. The developer unleashes the malware and sits back as the malware does all the work. This means the developer doesn’t need to risk outing themselves while giving commands; they can just “set and forget” their malware.

Monitoring User Voices for Sensitive Information

If an AI-driven malware gets control over a target’s microphone, it can listen in and record what people are saying nearby. The AI then pieces through what it heard, transcribes it into text, then sends the text back to the developer. This makes life easier for the developer, who doesn’t have to sit through hours of audio recording to find trade secrets.

How Can a Computer “Learn?”

Malware can learn from its actions through what’s called “machine learning.” This is a specific area of AI, related to how computers can learn from their efforts. Machine learning is useful for AI developers because they don’t need to code for every scenario. They let the AI know what’s right and what’s not, then let it learn through trial and error.

When AI trained by machine-learning faces an obstacle, it tries different methods to overcome it. At first, it will do a poor job at passing the challenge, but the computer will note what went wrong and what can be improved. Over the course of several iterations of learning and trying, it eventually gets a good idea of what the “correct” answer is.

You can see an example of this progress in the video above. The video shows an AI learning how to make different creatures walk properly. The first few generations walk as if they are drunk, but the later ones hold their posture. This is because the AI learned from the previous failures and did a better job on the later models.

Malware developers use this power of machine learning to figure out how to correctly attack a system. If something goes wrong, the system logs this error and notes what they did that caused that problem. In the future, the malware will adapt its attack patterns for better results.

How Can We Defend Against Malware-Driven AI?

The big problem with machine-learning AI is that they exploit the current way that antiviruses work. An antivirus likes to work via straightforward rules; if a program fits a specific niche that an antivirus knows is malicious, it blocks it.

AI-driven malware, however, won’t work via hard and set rules. It will continuously prod at the defenses, trying to find a way through. Once it has made its way in, it can perform its job without hindrance until the antivirus receives updates specific to the threat.

So, what’s the best way to fight off this “smart” malware? Sometimes you need to fight fire with fire, and the best way to do that is to introduce AI-driven antivirus programs

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These 4 Antivirus Tools Are Using AI to Protect Your System

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. These don’t use static rules to catch malware, like our current models. Instead, they analyze what a program is doing and stops it if it’s acting maliciously, according to the antivirus’s opinion.

A Future Defined by Artificial Intelligence

Basic rules and simple instructions won’t define malware attacks in the future. Instead, they’ll use machine learning to adapt and shape themselves to counter whatever security they meet. It may not be as exciting as how Hollywood depicts malicious AI, but the threat is very much real.

If you’d like to see some less-scary examples of Artificial Intelligence, check these AI-powered websites

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Image Credit: sdecoret/Depositphotos

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7 Free Bootable Antivirus Disks to Clean Malware From Your PC

Your antivirus or antimalware suite keeps your system clean. At least, it does most of the time. Security programs are better than ever, but some malware still squeezes through the gaps. There is also the other common issue: the human touch. Where there is a human, there is a chance for malware to slip through.

When that happens, you can reach for a bootable antivirus disk. A bootable antivirus disk is a malware removal environment that works like a Linux Live CD or USB. Here are seven free bootable antivirus disks you should check out.

1. Kaspersky Rescue Disk

kaspersky rescue disk scan tool

The Kaspersky Rescue Disk is one of the best bootable antivirus disks, allowing you to scan an infected machine with ease. The Kaspersky Rescue Disk scanner has a reasonable range of antivirus scanning options, including individual folder scanning, startup objects, system drive, and fileless objects. You can also scan your system boot sectors, which is a nice option to find stubbornly hidden malware.

That said, the Kaspersky Rescue Disk does come with a smattering of additional tools, such as Firefox, a file manager, and more.

Another handy Kaspersky Rescue Disk feature is the graphic or text-based interface. For most users, the GUI is the best option, but the text-only mode is available for low power machines or otherwise.

Kaspersky consistently achieves high scores in antivirus testing, and the Kaspersky Rescue Disk brings that to you in a bootable format. Kaspersky also features in our list of the best antivirus suites for Windows 10.

Download: Kaspersky Rescue Disk (Free)

2. Bitdefender Rescue CD

Bitdefender Rescue CD is of the same ilk as Kaspersky’s offering. It is a large download, has a simple to use UI, and comes with several antivirus scan options to help you figure out what’s wrong with your system.

The scanning interface is easy to navigate, allowing you to exclude certain file types, scan archive files (such as a .ZIP or .7z), scan files below a particular size, or just drag and drop individual files into the scanner. For the most part, however, the standard scan is fine as you want to make sure your system is free of malware.

Also included in the Bitdefender Rescue CD is Firefox, a file browser, disk recovery tool, and a few other utilities.

The major downside to Bitdefender Rescue CD is that it is no longer updated; therefore, the virus signatures are outdated. Still, it is a decent rescue disk.

Download: Bitdefender Rescue CD (Free)

3. Avira Rescue System

Avira Rescue System is an Ubuntu-based bootable antivirus rescue disc. The Avira Rescue Disc is one of the best bootable antivirus environments for beginners, as it includes a handy guide to walk you through scanning your drives. Moreover, Avira offers very little in the way of scan customization. Again, this might suit a beginner, as there is less chance of turning part of a scan off and missing a malicious file.

The Avira Rescue System environment is easy to navigate, with a streamlined interface of labeled boxes. Like the other options, the Avira Rescue System includes a web browser and a disk partitioning tool amongst others.

As Avira is an Ubuntu-based rescue disk, it also works well with Linux-based systems.

Download: Avira Rescue System (Free)

4. Trend Micro Rescue Disk

From three of the largest bootable antivirus rescue disks to the smallest. The Trend Micro Rescue Disk may well be the smallest bootable antivirus disk on this list, but it packs a handy punch that will help you regain control of your system.

Given its size (around 70MB at the time of writing), you can forgive that the Trend Micro Rescue Disk has no graphical user interface. Instead, you use the rescue disk exclusively through plain text menus. It sounds a little daunting. But in practice, the text menus are simple to navigate, and you will find your way through.

Download: Trend Micro Rescue Disk for Windows (Free)

5. Dr.Web Live Disk

Despite the slightly suspect name (Dr.Web sounds like a phony internet firm, to me at least), Dr.Web Live Disk offers a wide range of antivirus scanning options in its bootable antivirus environment. In comparison with the alternatives, Dr.Web’s range of scanning options is extensive.

For instance, you can configure the types and sizes of files for inclusion and exclusion. You can set individual actions for specific types of malware, such as a bootkit, dialer, adware, and so on. You can also limit the amount of time the virus scan spends on individual files, handy if you have multiple large media file types.

Dr.Web Live Disk has another string in its bow, too: you can use it to scan Linux systems.

Download: Dr.Web Live Disk (Free)

6. AVG Rescue

avg rescue disk menu

AVG is one of the most recognizable names in security. The AVG Rescue disk has a very basic, text-only interface, but it does allow for customizable scanning.

For instance, you can mount a specific Windows volume and scan only that, or scan specific files within that volume. Alternatively, you can scan Windows Startup objects or even just the Windows Registry to seek out specific malware types. (Should you clean the Windows Registry

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, anyway?) In addition, AVG Rescue comes with a few diagnostic and analytical tools to help you fix drive specific issues, rather than just straight-up malware.

The very basic text interface won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Having to navigate back and forth through the interface using the arrow keys is infuriating at times. But, given the range of options available and the accuracy of the AVG Rescue disk scanner, you might overlook the arrow keys.

Download: AVG Rescue (Free)

7. ESET SysRescue Live

run eset sys rescue disk

The final bootable antivirus disk for your consideration is ESET SysRescue Live, an advanced antivirus rescue disk with lots of features.

ESET SysRescue Live comes with extensive antivirus scan control. You can scan archives, email folders, symbolic links, boot sectors, and more, or use the ESET scan profiles. The ESET SysRescue Live disk also packs in a disk analysis tool to check for defects and other failures, plus a memory test tool to check your system RAM for errors.

The rescue environment also comes with the Chromium browser, partition manager GParted, TeamViewer for remote system access, and a smattering of other handy utilities.

Download: ESET SysRescue Live (Free)

What Is the Best Free Bootable Antivirus Disk?

For me, the best free bootable antivirus disk is a toss-up between Kaspersky Rescue Disk and Dr.Web Live Disk.

The Kaspersky Rescue Disk is cumbersome but effective, updating regularly and backed with Kaspersky’s excellence in the field of security. But it doesn’t have the same extensive functionality as the Dr.Web Live Disk. While the latter cannot truly compete with Kaspersky on scanning terms alone, the scanning options available in the Dr.Web Live Disk make it a handy tool.

Regarding the other tools, all are strong and will clean your system. Depending on the severity of the malware, you could download two bootable antivirus disks and run them one after the other to make sure nothing slips through the net.

For more malware removal advice, check out our malware removal guide

The Complete Malware Removal Guide

The Complete Malware Removal Guide

Malware is everywhere these days, and eradicating malware from your system is a lengthy process, requiring guidance. If you think your computer is infected, this is the guide you need.
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Image Credit: Asiorek/Depositphotos

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Is Linux Really Immune to Viruses and Malware? Here’s the Truth

One reason people switch to Linux is to have better security. Once you switch to Linux, the thinking goes, you no longer have to worry about viruses and other types of malware. But while this is largely true in practice, desktop Linux isn’t actually all that secure.

If a virus wants to wreck shop on your free and open source desktop, there’s a good chance that it can.

Why Malware Is Less Common on Linux Desktops

Person in shadow looking at computer monitors
Image Credit: Kevin Horvat/Unsplash

Malware is unwanted code that somehow made its way onto your computer in order to perform functions designed with malicious intent. Sometimes these programs slow down a machine or cause it to crash entirely. The creators may then demand a ransom in order to fix the machine.

Sometimes malware uploads information to remote servers, giving someone access to your saved data or vital credentials that you type, such as passwords and credit card numbers.

People tend to create malware for Windows because that’s the operating system found on the most PCs. This increases the odds that a virus will spread from one computer to another.

Virus makers tend to target less technical users that are easier to fool with bogus web banners and phishing scams. Viruses also spread among people who know how to pirate music and TV shows but don’t understand how these files may be infected.

There are antivirus programs for Linux

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The 6 Best Free Linux Antivirus Programs

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, but even their purpose is often to help protect Windows users.

Linux Desktop Malware Exists, But It’s Rare

One piece of malware has recently made news for targeting the Linux desktop. EvilGNOME runs on the GNOME desktop environment by pretending to be an extension.

GNOME is the most common Linux desktop environment

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, found as the default interface on two of the most popular Linux distros, Ubuntu and Fedora, and on computers that ship directly from Linux manufacturers such as System76 and Purism. Legitimate extensions allow you to alter many aspects of the GNOME desktop.

The malware known as EvilGNOME is able to take screenshots and record audio from your PC’s microphone. It can also upload your personal files. A more detailed breakdown is available in a report by Intezer Labs, who gave EvilGNOME its name.

This malware didn’t attract attention for being particularly likely to impact large numbers of people. It was considered newsworthy because it existed at all.

Most Linux Malware Targets Servers

A datacenter room with server racks
Image Credit: Taylor Vick/Unsplash

Linux is relatively rare on desktops, but it’s the most prominent operating system found on servers powering the web and managing much of the world’s digital infrastructure.

Many attacks target websites rather than PCs. Hackers often look for vulnerabilities in network daemons that they can use to gain access to Linux-powered servers. Some will install a malicious script on a server that then targets visitors rather than the system itself.

Hacking Linux-powered machines, whether they are servers or IoT devices, is one way to go about infecting the web or creating botnets.

Linux’s Design Is Not Inherently Secure

Desktop Linux in its current form is hardly a fortress. Compared to Windows XP, where malicious software could gain administrator access without prompting for a password, Linux offered much better security. These days, Microsoft has made changes to close that gap. Since Vista, Windows has issued a prompt.

Yet fretting about the security of system files almost misses the point. Most of the data we care about isn’t saved in our root system folders. It’s the personal data in our home directory that’s irreplaceable and most revealing. Software on Linux, malicious or otherwise, doesn’t need your password to access this data and share it with others.

User accounts can also run scripts that activate your microphone, turn on your webcam, log key presses, and record what happens onscreen.

In other words, it almost doesn’t matter how secure the Linux kernel is, or the safeguards surrounding various system components, if it’s the vulnerabilities in apps and the desktop environment that can put the data you care most about at risk.

EvilGNOME doesn’t install itself among your system files. It lurks in a hidden folder in your home directory. On the positive side, that makes it easier to remove. But you have to first know it’s there.

4 Reasons Why Linux Relatively Safe to Use

While Linux isn’t immune to exploits, in day-to-day use, it still provides a much safer environment than Windows. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Multiple Distros, Environments, and System Components

App developers have a hard time developing for Linux because there are so many versions to support. The same challenge faces malware creators. What’s the best way to infiltrate someone’s computer? Do you sneak code in the DEB or RPM format?

You may try to exploit a vulnerability in the Xorg display server or in a particular window compositor, only to find that users have something else installed.

2. App Stores and Package Managers Shield Linux Users

Traditional Linux package management systems put app maintainers and reviewers between users and their software source. As long as you get all of your software from these trusted sources, you’re very unlikely to run into anything malicious.

Avoid copying and pasting command line instructions to install software, especially when you don’t know exactly what the command is doing and you’re unsure of the source.

3. Newer Technologies Actively Consider Security

New app formats like Flatpak and Snap introduce permissions and sandboxing, limiting what apps can access. The new Wayland display server can prevents apps from taking screenshots or recording happens onscreen, making it harder to exploit.

4. The Source Code Is Open for Anyone to Read

The primary advantage of Linux comes from being able to view the code. Since Linux is open source rather than proprietary, you don’t have to worry about the desktop itself working against you, acting as spyware itself or suffering from exploits that haven’t been disclosed for commercial reasons.

Even if you can’t make sense of the code, you can read the blog posts or reports by someone that does.

Should You Be Afraid of Linux Malware?

It’s a myth that Linux users don’t have to worry about viruses, but if you stick to your distro’s app stores or other trusted sources such as Flathub, you’re unlikely to stumble across anything dangerous.

No matter which operating system you use, it’s important that you adopt safe digital habits. Don’t make the mistake of believing that switching to Linux means you can download from sketchy sites without concern.

Yet for most of us, the biggest risk probably isn’t malware. If you’ve created a large number of online accounts or depend on cloud services, phishing scams are a much larger threat

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to your data, whether or not you use Linux.

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