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Apple computer owners have long felt free to roam the internet without a care in the world. You float out of the Apple Store with a white box that perfectly slides apart when you open it at your home, and inside is your impenetrable, space-grey fortress of solitude with an Apple logo just waiting to shine for you. Prevailing wisdom would have you believe that Apple’s Macs are completely immune from viruses. However, Macs absolutely can get viruses.
The myth that Macs don’t get viruses has been around for a long time. The company doesn’t outright reject the myth, because it fits with Apple’s clean, seamless, and secure user experience. Researchers discovered the first Apple firmware viruses in 2015. By 2020, malware threats on Macs increased by 400%. In 2021, over 29,000 Macs were hit with a mysterious malware strain. Apple users have seen a sharp rise in security vulnerabilities in the last decade, and many Mac users have their guard down.
Origins of the Myth
“Hello, I’m a Mac,” said actor Justin Long in a 2006 Apple advertisement. He stood next to a visibly sick man, claiming to be a PC.
“I have that virus that’s going around,” said the PC man. “You better stay back, this one’s a doozy.”
“That’s okay,” Long said. “I’ll be fine.”
The commercial was the beginning of a six-year advertising campaign from Apple, where it claimed that PCs had 114,000 known viruses, while Apple had none. Apple proudly boasted on its website that the Mac “doesn’t get PC viruses,” until 2012. That year, the company quietly removed these claims from its website, spotted by Wired, and replaced them with the wimpier claim that Macs are “built to be safe.”
The claim Apple was making was true, and Apple computers did not commonly get viruses until the mid-2010s. However, the reason has less to do with Apple’s extraordinary malware protection, it’s more about the sheer number of Macs in the world.
In 2013, over 90% of the world’s computers were PCs running on Windows, while just 8% of the world used Macs. There were likely even fewer Macs in 2006 when the “Get a Mac” ads started. Spreading computer viruses is largely a numbers game, so it makes sense to design viruses for the largest market out there, PCs. Even today, only 20% of the world uses a Mac.
Today, it’s becoming more common for Macs to get viruses. The company’s large user base is now worth hackers going after them. Yes, Apple does have security protections in place, but it’s not like PCs don’t as well.
So it was really Apple who started this myth with its own clever marketing. It’s like a small car company saying its cars crash less than Ford. It has nothing to do with safety, and everything to do with the number of products on the market.
Why It’s Pervasive
The idea that Apple’s computers are “virus-proof” feels like it should be true. Apple has built one of the strongest brands on Earth around reliable products, sleek designs, and clean marketing. “Virus-free” fits the vibe, but it’s simply not the case.
When Apple’s Macs did start getting viruses, the company did little to correct the narrative it had created. Instead, Apple let this myth run amuck. In its defense, how do you let the world know, “Actually, your computer can get viruses now” without a PR disaster? The company was a little over its head, so it just stayed quiet.
All of Apple’s products are susceptible to hackers and viruses, just like any other connected device. iPhones were the target of a vicious malware attack in Sept. 2023, prompting Apple to ask users to update their software immediately.
These days, Apple has a “Protect your Mac from malware” page tucked into its website. The company has lots of security tips for how to keep your computer safe. Apple has come a long way from those 2006 ads, finally acknowledging that the Mac is not really virus-proof.