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When Hackers Attack the Macs

Today, when you envision somebody using a laptop, it seems as if your first inkling would be to assume it is a Mac (especially on college campuses).  One of the biggest factors that has contributed to the decision to purchase a Mac in recent years is often the perceived heightened security from viruses that Mac users enjoy.  This arises because people often assume that PCs are far more susceptible to viruses and malware since so many different kinds have been developed to target PCs specifically over the years.  It’s been theorized that PCs have been the bigger target for hackers in the past since they have encompassed a large part of the market share for computers for a long time, thus making it worthwhile for hackers to find ways to hack a PC rather than a Mac.  However, as of late, this dynamic as been changing, and now more hackers than ever are targeting Macs – even earlier than game theorists  predicted.

As Apple ferociously expands and a growing network of people use Macs, game theorists such as Adam O’Donnell predicted that cybercriminals would begin to attack Macs once they reached a market share of around 16%.  However, an increase in attacks has already been witnessed with Apple only having an 11% market share.  Why? Because O’Donnell underestimated the trajectory of effectiveness of antivirus software.  As software got better and better at detecting new versions of malware on Windows’ operating system, hackers began to attack Mac computers since they were now viewed as “more interesting” of a target.  This whole paradigm creates a game that is reflected by the image below:

Note: this chart wasn’t from the article, it was constructed and rationalized to depict the current situation of hackers vs PCs and Macs.

In the game above, the payoffs are the utilities for each player, where the row entry is the utility for the hacker and the column entry is the utility of the computer user.  Also, assume the computer user uses the type of computer the hacker chooses to hack in each scenario (this is done in order to evaluate relative utilities between owning each computer and being hacked).  In this game, the hacker’s dominant strategy is to hack a Mac computer since it gives the hacker more utility than hacking a PC regardless of if the user has antivirus or not.  The computer user’s dominant strategy is to install antivirus so that they are protected against hackers regardless of the type of computer they use.  This results in a pure Nash equilibrium where a hacker hacks a Mac and a Mac user installs antivirus software to detect it.  It is important to note that a Mac user gets more negative utility than a PC user when they are successfully hacked, implying that a Mac user assumes that they are more secure just by owning a Mac instead of a PC, regardless of antivirus.  This clearly isn’t the case in today’s society because hackers are getting more utility out of attacking Macs, which implies that Mac users also need to get effective antivirus just as PC users do.  This insinuates that society isn’t actually operating in the pure Nash equilibrium, but instead in the domain where hackers hack Macs increasingly and Mac users don’t install antivirus because they don’t realize it’s necessary.

Overall, it is imperative that Mac users begin to take precautions to protect against the growing threats of malware being developed for Macs.  Thankfully, Apple’s newest operating system called Mountain Lion is supposed to only allow its users to install approved applications that have been previously checked for malware.  As Apple continues to eat up more market share by the day, the Mac users of today can only hope that Mountain Lion will curb this malware threat before it gets too serious.




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September 2012