The worm turns on Apple

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Macintosh enthusiasts have long used the security of their systems as a flag to wave in the faces of their Windows-using counterparts. With the recent announcement of some key holes in Mac OS X, that flag is drooping.

According to many analysts, however, it's not likely that viruses will soon run roughshod over the Mac world as they have over the Windows community. This is largely due to Apple being more conservative with the way it has doled out its root privileges.

"The highest level rights are turned off by default," said Jupiter analyst Joe Wilcox, speaking about OS X. "They need to be on to install software, but to turn them on temporarily you need to enter a username and password; so even people who might have been infected by one of these so-called worms, that system prevented self-installation."

Nevertheless, experts warned that Apple and its users shouldn't rest on their laurels the way the PC community did before viruses became a Windows problem.

"When we look at the history of viruses, it wasn't always like this," said Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer for F-Secure. "Before the first PC virus appeared in 1986, the whole computer virus problem was largely seen as a Mac-only problem."

Four Mac viruses in a month hardly constitutes a reverse of today's trend, Hypponen said, emphasizing that it is now still very much a Windows issue. But it does show that no operating system is safe. And while root privileges make it more difficult for black-hat developers to exploit OS X, hackers seeking notoriety historically crave challenges.

"The Windows space is so dominated by the criminal presence that if you're a hacker, there's not a whole lot you can do," said Dave Cole, director of Symantec Security Response. "If I'm playing around, I'm going to go elsewhere."

These initial viruses are portentous, then, signifying to Apple administrators that they must take the same precautions as their Windows counterparts, Hypponen said.

"If you are in a corporate environment running Macs, it make sense to start looking at protection systems...start running gateway protections," he said. "Even though something big might not happen today or tomorrow, when it does happen in a month or a year, you don't have to start from scratch."

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