Do Macs Have Built-in Antivirus?

The facts you need about antivirus on Macs

By
&
Aliza Vigderman
Gabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated on Apr 5, 2021
By Aliza Vigderman & Gabe Turner on Apr 5, 2021

For many years, most Mac users assumed that their computers were safe from the viruses that attacked PCs. For a while, that was true. But these days, bad actors are creating malware that targets Macs and can take over your computer and steal your personal financial information. So do you need antivirus software on your Mac, or does the computer have built-in antivirus protection? The answer is more complicated than you might think.

Avast Antivirus - Mac is Protected
Avast Antivirus – Mac is Protected

Do Macs Have Built-in Antivirus Software?

Since 2009, Apple has included XProtect, Apple’s proprietary antivirus software, on all Macs. XProtect scans all applications and files for viruses and malware using a database of threats that Apple updates daily. If XProtect detects malware on a file or application, it notifies the user and blocks the download. Since threats are always changing, the Mac Malware Removal Tool also scans your computer regularly to check that nothing sneaks past XProtect. If the tool identifies malware, it will notify you and remove the dangerous files.

In general, the design of Macs limits damage from malware. The computers automatically quarantine suspicious files, meaning that they can’t access critical system software or change the computer’s core functions. Apple enables these features by default, so you don’t have to worry about getting your settings right.

Do Macs Have Built-in Security?

Macs have several built-in security features designed to protect your computer and information from attackers. These include antivirus software called XProtect and the Mac Malware Removal Tool. Additionally, Macs keep malicious software from causing too much damage with tools like Execute Disable (XD), Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR), and System Integrity Protection (SIP) that run in the background to prevent viruses from accessing critical files.1 Apple also updates Macs daily with new virus information, so you don’t need to wait for the next security patch or software update to stay protected.

Do Macs Need Antivirus Software?

Most antivirus experts agree that while Apple’s security software is fairly good, it’s not foolproof. XProtect does not identify as many types of potential malware as third-party antivirus software, and gaps in its library of malicious programs can leave users exposed.2 Part of the problem is that the software relies heavily on Apple identifying and tagging malware and viruses, and since Apple isn’t a dedicated security company, it doesn’t keep track of nearly as many threats as third-party products. According to Malwarebytes, the number of serious malware attacks identified on Macs increased by 61 percent from 2019 to 2020, while less malicious adware rates declined, a worrying trend that suggests installing dedicated antivirus software is a wise decision.3 That being said, it’s important to make sure the antivirus you choose works on a Mac, which is why we tested the software we listed as the best antivirus software for Macs.

Bitdefender Dashboard
Bitdefender Dashboard

What Are the Latest Mac Viruses?

Macs face an increasing number of threats. These are a few you should know about:

  • ThiefQuest: This ransomware steals your files, searches for passwords, and even logs your keystrokes to steal personal information, including financial data. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to detect.
  • GravityRAT: This malicious software has come after PCs for years, but now it’s figured out how to get into Macs by using stolen developer signatures that bypass the built-in protections of Macs. It can take screenshots, record audio, and more.
  • XCSSET: This app targets Mac developers, but regular users can also download it when it’s hidden inside an open-source app. It takes charge of the user’s browser and accesses financial information.4
  • OSX/Shlayer: This malware comes up in Google results disguised as a Flash player and guides the user through prompts to install it, bypassing Macs’ built-in security. It installs a hidden app that allows its creators to send other malware or adware to the computer. It may be present in up to 1 in 10 Macs.5

How to Tell if Your Mac Is Infected

Mac malware and adware can be pretty sneaky. But here are a few telltale signs that might indicate an infection.

  • Ads and pop-ups: If you see pop-up ads when you’re not online, you probably have a virus.
  • Unexpected slowdowns: If your Mac was working fine and is now much slower, you could have a problem on your hands.
  • Programs you don’t recognize: If you see new icons that you don’t recognize on your home screen or in your apps folder, that could be a sign of a potentially unwanted program (PUP) infection.
  • Browser redirection: If your browser is taking you to sites you didn’t tell it to or even redirecting your search traffic through other engines, you may have a virus.
  • Personal files encrypted: If you get a message that your files are encrypted, your computer could have ransomware. Learn about how to prevent ransomware.

Mac Malware Myths

A lot has changed since Macs first came on the market to compete with PCs, and unfortunately, that means some incorrect information and myths have stuck around. We’ll debunk a few falsehoods here.

Myth 1: Macs Are Safe From Malware.

Hackers used to target Macs less frequently because they weren’t as popular as PCs. Now that Macs are very common and PCs have better defenses, malware designed for Macs is on the rise. In fact, antivirus software Malwarebytes reported that it detected 9.8 viruses on average per Mac in 2019, compared with just 4.2 viruses on the average Windows computer. In the same year, a Mac malware program was the second-most frequently detected in the world,6 which is startling, given that Macs comprise only 17 percent of desktops worldwide as of December 2020. In contrast, Windows makes up 77 percent of all desktops, making the disparity in malware detections even more shocking.7

Myth 2: Macs Don’t Have Software Vulnerabilities.

Thanks to strong advertising by Apple, lots of people believe that Mac’s software itself doesn’t have the security openings that Windows does. However, that isn’t true; researchers have identified thousands of vulnerabilities over the years.8

Myth 3: Malware Can’t Take Over Your Mac Without a Password.

Since Macs require your password to install software, many people think they are safe from malware as long as they don’t install anything that looks unfamiliar. However, these days you’re more likely to get infected by visiting a website with malicious code or watching an advertisement. Plus, hackers have gotten a lot better at disguising malware as legitimate programs.

What to Look for in Mac Antivirus

Trying to identify the right antivirus software for your Mac can be daunting. Here are a few things you’ll want to look for:

  • Automatic scans for file downloads
  • Regular scans to search for existing viruses or malware
  • Continuously updated library of threats
  • Adware detection
  • The ability to repair your computer or reset any changes caused by malware
  • A highly rated Mac app

Free vs. Paid Mac Antivirus

With several robust free antivirus options out there, paid antivirus software can be a hard sell. However, the best antivirus software options for Mac are paid (our favorite is Avast), and we think it’s well worth the small monthly fee to ensure you have the best protection for threats against Macs. Check out our review of Avast to learn why we think it’s the strongest choice.

Kaspersky Antivirus App Home Screen
Kaspersky Antivirus App Home Screen

Mac Antivirus Effect on Performance

Some Mac users don’t install antivirus software because they have concerns about its impact on computer performance. Antivirus software can indeed affect a computer’s speed, but slowdowns range widely — from 1 percent to 51 percent — based on the software and system, according to AV-Test.9

How We Test Mac Antivirus

When we review antivirus options for Macs, we test against five different types of viruses and malware to see if they identify dangerous downloads. We also use the program’s scans to see how well they identify what is already on the computer. We combine that research with extensive data from AV-Labs, a leader in the antivirus industry that tests software against tens of thousands of known viruses, to give us a fuller picture of how well the program can identify malware.

Privacy Concerns With Mac Antivirus

We need to be cautious about the privacy implications of the software we choose, and that includes antivirus programs. We recommend considering a few key questions regarding your antivirus software.

Is the Company Located in a Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, or 14 Eyes Country?

Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes are surveillance alliances in which countries have agreed to turn over data to each other for security or law enforcement reasons. If an antivirus company is based in a country that belongs to one or more of these alliances, that means any country in the alliance can compel the company to turn over your data.

What Type of Encryption Does the Program Use?

There are a few different ways in which companies encrypt your data, and it’s essential to know that your sensitive information is safe. We recommend looking for antivirus software that uses AES 256-bit encryption, the standard the U.S. government uses for top-secret data.

What’s in the Privacy Policy?

As with any digital product, it’s a good idea to examine the privacy policy for an antivirus. Some antivirus software options (especially free ones) sell user data or share it with third parties, which is both invasive and a potential threat to your security, since the more places your sensitive data is stored, the more likely it is to be stolen.

Other Ways to Secure Macs

Besides purchasing antivirus software, you can do a few other things to protect your Mac:

  • Update your system. Always download security and system updates, since they frequently contain security patches or information about new viruses.
  • Restart your computer. Regularly restart your computer to ensure that Apple’s Malware Removal Tool, which runs when the computer starts, has a chance to scan your machine.
  • Avoid phishing. Be very careful about what files you download, and watch out for phishing attempts.

Do Macs Have a Built-in Firewall?

Macs have a built-in firewall, but it is turned off by default. Although Macs are less vulnerable to hacks via incoming connections than PCs are, if you want to be safe, it’s easy to turn on the firewall. Here’s how:

  1. Go to System Preferences.
  2. Click Security And Privacy.
  3. Go to Firewall.
  4. Enter your password.
  5. Click Turn On Firewall.
  6. Click Configure Firewall.

Do Macs Have Built-in VPNs?

Macs have built-in support for connecting to a private company or school’s network, like those you might use to access your work’s servers from home. However, they do not provide a “true” VPN that protects all of your traffic without going through one of those networks. If you’d like to use a third-party VPN, Macs support most VPN apps. However, they do not support OpenVPN, which is a common VPN protocol. You can still use a VPN built on OpenVPN, but you will need to download a third-party app to make the connection. And not all VPNs work equally with Apple products, which is why we rounded up the best VPNs for Mac.

ExpressVPN App
ExpressVPN App

How to Connect to a Work or School VPN

If you’re using a VPN provided by your company to access your network remotely, follow these steps to set it up:10

  1. Click on the Apple button.
  2. Select System Preferences.
  3. Select Network.
  4. Click the VPN Type pop-up menu, then choose the type of VPN connection you want to use. Your network administrator should have provided you with this information.
  5. Name the VPN connection.
  6. Click Create.
  7. Enter the server address and the account name for the VPN connection. Again, your network administrator should have given you this information.
  8. Click Authentication Settings, then enter the authentication information you received from your administrator.
  9. If your administrator says you need to take additional steps, you can follow their instructions at this point by clicking Advanced to enter in more information.
  10. Click Apply.
  11. Click OK.

Recap

Macs come with out-of-the-box antivirus software, XProtect, as well as Apple’s Malware Removal Tool. However, these tools only protect against viruses and malware that Apple identifies, which make up a small percentage of the threats internet security companies identify each day. For that reason, we recommend installing reliable third-party antivirus software on your Mac.

FAQs

We know that’s a lot of information! We’ve rounded up a few of the questions we get most often about antivirus for Macs to help you digest it.

  • Do you need virus protection on a Mac?

    Yes, you need virus protection on a Mac. Apple’s built-in security is not as comprehensive as third-party software, and viruses targeting Macs are increasing rapidly. From 2019 to 2020, the incidence of the most dangerous types of malware on Macs increased by over 61 percent, according to Malwarebytes.11

  • Can Macs get malware?

    Yes, Macs can get malware. In fact, according to Kaspersky, 1 in 10 Macs are infected with malware known as Shlayer. And that’s not counting all the other types of malicious programs out there.

  • Does Apple recommend antivirus software?

    No, Apple does not recommend antivirus software, but it doesn’t recommend against it either. After all, one of its big marketing points for its computers is their security features.

  • Does Apple have a virus scan?

    Yes, Apple does have a virus scan. Its Malware Removal Tool automatically scans daily for viruses and removes any that it finds.

Citations
  1. Apple. (2021). macOS – Security.
    apple.com/macos/security/

  2. Malwarebytes. (2021). Mac antivirus.
    malwarebytes.com/mac-antivirus/

  3. Malwarebytes. (2021). State of Malware.
    resources.malwarebytes.com/files/2021/02/MWB_StateOfMalwareReport2021.pdf

  4. Sophos. (2020). Macs Under Threat – Four Mac Malware Variants to Watch Out For.
    home.sophos.com/en-us/security-news/2020/macs-under-threat-four-mac-malware.aspx

  5. Intego. (2020). New Mac malware reveals Google searches can be unsafe.
    intego.com/mac-security-blog/new-mac-malware-reveals-google-searches-can-be-unsafe/

  6. Malwarebytes. (2019). Mac threat detections on the rise in 2019.
    malwarebytes.com/mac/2019/12/mac-threat-detections-on-the-rise-in-2019/

  7. Statista. (2021). Global market share held by operating systems for desktop PCs, from January 2013 to December 2020.
    statista.com/statistics/218089/global-market-share-of-windows-7/

  8. CVE Details. (2021). Apple Mac Os X: List of security vulnerabilities.
    cvedetails.com/vulnerability-list/vendor_id-49/product_id-156/Apple-Mac-Os-X.html

  9. AV Test. (2020). AV-TEST Product Review and Certification Report – Dec/2020.
    av-test.org/en/antivirus/home-macos/macos-catalina/december-2020/avast-security-14.6-205201/

  10. Apple. (2021). Set up a VPN connection on Mac.
    support.apple.com/guide/mac-help/set-up-a-vpn-connection-on-mac-mchlp2963/mac

  11. Malwarebytes. (2021). State of Malware.
    resources.malwarebytes.com/files/2021/02/MWB_StateOfMalwareReport2021.pdf