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No, your Apple computer isn't immune from ransomware

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Since Friday, hundreds of thousands of Windows PCs around the world have been hit by a nasty strain of ransomware called WannaCry 2.0.

Ransomware is a form of malware that completely encrypts your PC. The only way to get the key to unlock your photos, documents and music is to erase your hard drive or pay a ransom.

Apple’s Macs aren’t affected by the WannaCry 2.0 ransomware, but it can be impacted by similar malware.

This particular type of ransomware is only affecting Windows computers, but that doesn’t mean Apple’s (AAPL) Macs and MacBooks are immune from these types of attacks.

See, contrary to popular belief, Apple’s desktops and laptops aren’t inherently safer than those running Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows operating systems.

Yes, WannaCry 2.0 does exploit a vulnerability in older versions of Windows, but Microsoft issued a patch to deal with the problem well before this malware exploded across the web.

Windows is hurt by its popularity

None of this points to Microsoft’s current operating system, Windows 10, being more susceptible to malware than Apple’s macOS or OS X. In fact, the real reason hackers and criminals attack Windows is that it’s the most popular desktop operating system in the world.

“Cyber criminals are generally looking for a scenario that will maximize the return on their investment,” explained McAfee CTO Steve Grobman. “What that means is they will invest in creating a malware or ransomware campaign that they believe will generate the maximum amount of ransom payment by the victim.”

One of the key elements to a successful ransomware attack is the use of social engineering to trick victims into downloading infected files in dubious emails.

This is the screen you’ll see if your computer is infected with the WannaCry 2.0 ransomware.

To sucker enough people into doing that, though, criminals have to cast an incredibly wide net. And since Windows is far more popular in the world than Apple’s OS X and macOS, hackers go after Microsoft’s operating system.

“Given that the vast majority of deployed platforms in corporate environments are Windows, there is a lot of attention on looking for exploitation vectors of the Windows platform,” Grobman explained.

In other words, if Apple’s macOS and OS X were as popular as Windows, we’d see a heck of a lot more malware designed to attack Apple’s machines.

We’re only human

Vulnerabilities like the one used in the WannaCry ransomware are the result of human error when developing an operating system. Humans, like you and me, are notoriously fallible and are the ones who build and program operating systems like Windows.

Companies like Microsoft and Apple continually work to find these vulnerabilities before criminals can exploit them. But with millions and millions of lines of code to comb through, it’s nearly impossible to find every issue. What’s more, each update to an operating system can introduce new vulnerabilities that didn’t exist beforehand.

Apple does have one advantage over Microsoft when it comes to issues like malware: it builds both its own software and hardware. That means that if Apple finds an issue with a piece of firmware for its MacBooks or Macs it can provide an update that addresses it.

Microsoft’s software is installed on machines built by a slew of companies including Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP and others. Each of those organizations might have their own firmware that can be exploited that would need to be fixed with Microsoft’s help.

So no, Apple’s MacBooks and Macs aren’t more secure than Windows-powered machines. If you’re running a new operating system and are sure to keep it properly updated, your Windows and Apple laptops and desktops will be equally secure.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.