UK Hi-Tech Crime Wave and Why I Use A Mac

Last night, the BBC showed a documentary on the UK Hi-Tech Crime Wave, which even for someone pretty up to date with the selection of security threats was pretty worrying, and was probably downright terrifying for the average user without proper virus checking, firewall or spyware detectors! As Dave Oliver has also chosen to comment on Howard’s decision to get a Mac, it also seems like a good opportunity to highlight why a Mac is now my main machine rather than a PC.

Looking at the programme first, it was primarily a whistlestop tour of the various methods by which criminals are making money from the Internet. Amongst other things it included a former chair of a local Police authority who had £2000 spent on a debit card that he never lost, which led to a discussion of skimming, where shops swipe the card information on the magnetic stripe on the back of your card (and still there even on new Chip and Pin cards), and then use the numbers online. They also interviewed an online retailer who has had problems with people using such stolen card numbers to buy goods, and who says that with his current losses eating into his profit margins, he soon will be unable to afford to keep the business going.

From there, the programme looked at the more PC based threats, firstly looking at the phising scams that have hit almost every major bank worldwide. From there it moved on to the more worrying key logging, and screen logging spyware, including another small businessman whose PC got infected with such spyware that recorded all his account details. The programme also looked at how the banks are trying to avoid the keyboard loggers by using drop down menus, but that the criminals are fighting back with applications that record the contents of your screen as well.

The final part of the programme looked at how infected, broadband connected PC‘s are used, detailing an attempted extortion against an online gambling site, where a bot-net (an group of infected PC‘s remotely controlled) was used to mount a denial of service attack, and then the attack followed up with both e-mail, and telephoned threats of extortion. According to the programme, the UK is one of the largest sources of infected PC‘s, and to be honest I’m not surprised.

The programme finished by encouraging everybody to ensure that they had up to date anti-virus software, firewalls and anti-spyware software installed, and to some extent that is where a lot of the UK problems come from. There are several people I know who still maintain that they don’t need to keep up to date anti-virus software as they don’t open any suspect e-mails. However, even people who are careful still get infected. I know of two people whose brand new PC‘s were infected in the short time the new machines were connected to download the latest virus definitions!

This leads neatly on to the reasons why I mainly use our Mac rather than a PC. Firstly a bit of background. We actually have both a PC and a Mac, and I would never have considered a Mac prior to the arrival of MacOS X. In my time with the PC I’d always messed around with alternative operating systems, particularly those that were Unix-like such as Linux, and particularly BeOS. However whilst they all had advantages over Windows in terms of interface, security and so on, ultimately I still needed to come back to Windows for software compatibility, and support. Whilst it was fun to play around with the different systems, for a machine that I could reliably keep up with e-mail, write documents and browse the web, and easily fix on the occasions it went wrong, Windows could not be beaten.

Things changed somewhat with the demise of BeOS. After that, Scot Hacker a leading advocate of the BeOS platform who wrote a regular column in Byte magazine wrote an article called Tales of a BeOS Refugee detailing how he went from BeOS to MacOS X, which led to me looking a bit deeper at what the Mac had to offer.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, when I spotted an end of line EMac in a sale, I picked it up. Initially it was used in a similar way to BeOS, for specific tasks, with web browsing and e-mail remaining on the PC. However over time I have gradually switched. The big changes were when the e-mail was switched over, which was as a result of a couple of events. Firstly back in 2001 Beth got sent a virus through her yahoo account – which she browsed with a web browser, and the virus downloaded onto the PC, so I decided to try and set up our e-mail so she could use a address, but keeping the mail separate. When it happened, all the PC solutions cost money, or required a switch to Linux, so I left it. However a while after we had got the Mac, Microsoft Outlook, which I was using for e-mail really messed up, to the point where I couldn’t send and recieve e-mail. Looking at the Mac, it included a full Sendmail server, and following a guide on O’Reilly I was able to set up our current system where Beth and myself have separate e-mail accounts. Similarly over time, one by one, things that I used to do on the PC have switched over to the Mac. Compatibility isn’t a problem either – the whole St James Parish Profile was put together using the Mac version of Office , with the other contributors using PC‘s.

Alongside the fact that I am able to do everything I need, one of the other things that keeps me on the Mac is the security. As more and more people have issues with viruses and spyware, the Mac remains largely unaffected. Whilst there are the same security issues that affect other platforms, whether due to the size of the market or whatever, the Mac isn’t affected by the volume of viruses and spyware that affect Windows. It is worth saying at this point that whilst there isn’t a problem now, technically the Mac could be attacked in the future, (have a read of this MacWorld article for some of the myths) so I still ensure I maintain up to date protection. However it is true to say that largely I don’t worry too much about it. As the US National Security Agency said in December 2004:

The system’s default configuration is one of the most important security features provided by Mac OS X. First, as stated above, the root account comes disabled in Mac OS X. Second, network services are all initially disabled. Third, the initial logging setup is consistent with good security practice.

Compare this with a Register review of Windows XP security after Service Pack 2 which was supposed to sort out the problems:

While we found that there are indeed a few minor improvements worthy of acknowledgment, in particular, some rather low-level improvements that don’t show to the admin or user, overall, SP2 did little to improve our system’s practical security, leaving too many services and networking components enabled, bungling permissions, leaving IE (Internet Explorer) and OE (Outlook Express) vulnerable to malicious scripts, and installing a packet filter that lacks a capacity for egress filtering.

Whilst it is true that I could probably do everything I do on the Mac on the PC, and it is perfectly possible to sort out the security flaws on the PC, I’m quite happy with the Mac.

Despite having worked with Dave and had him try and persuade me to switch back for years, he has failed. It is worth highlighting that his most persuasive attempt, was when he updated his PC to Windows XP SP2. Whereas my Mac Security Updates often don’t even require a reboot, SP2 left him spending the entire weekend rebuilding his PC after the update screwed up the machine.! So am I going to swap my ‘rubbish‘ Mac whose ‘setup is consistent with good security practice‘ for an OS that does ‘little to improve our system’s practical security, leaving too many services and networking components enabled, bungling permissions, leaving IE and OE vulnerable to malicious scripts‘? Of course not, I want a machine I can turn on, read my e-mail, browse the web and be done.

As to what machine I advise people to get, I don’t regard myself as a Mac Zealot, in that I don’t particularly care whether the processor is a PowerPC or Intel. However, putting aside security, if you want a machine that you can write a few letters, browse the web, send e-mail, and espcially if you want to work with digital pictures, video or music (iLife comes for free with the Mac), you owe it to yourself to take a trip to somewhere like the Apple Store, and take a look at what a Mac can do.

If you want more totally biased operating system comparisons, take a look at this article on Operating System Advocacy.

If you don’t have up to date virus protection, take a look at these:

Norton Internet Security 2005 Norton Internet Security Mac 3.0

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