One of the factors that Apple Mac users have long lorded over their Windows counterparts is the OS X’s inherent relative freedom from hacker and malware attacks. This alluring albeit illusory advantage was at the heart of many of the memorable PC vs. Mac television commercials. The level of massive consistent assailment and the equally massive response in the presence of omnipresent resource-hogging anti-virus suites commonplace in the Windows world is starting to dawn on the Apple side of the equation with the recent surfacing of a Flashback Trojan that has commandeered upwards of half a million Mac computers, passing sensitive information to internet command and control centers from web browsing activities including any usernames or passwords that you may enter.

Apple’s Lethargy Played into the Hands of the Hackers

The Flashback Trojan is a type of malware that is known as a drive-by infection since it is obtained by simply visiting a web page that contains the code. This virus can install itself without any user interaction so the vast majority of Mac users who are infected have no way to know that they’ve been attacked. The primary fault for this attack seems to be Apple’s particular method of dealing with Java. Instead of relying on the current Java public version, they create their own separate variant and release it on a time schedule that is considerably longer than that experienced by Windows users. This time delay played right into the hacker’s hands as they were able to access a huge installed base that was essentially unprotected.

Manual Removal Consists of 18 Separate & Technically Challenging Steps

This Mac virus is disseminated through infected websites that exploit Java vulnerabilities in OS X that have been present for some time but remained until recently unaddressed by Apple. There are various simple Terminal commands to determine whether your Mac has been duly affected, but for the technically unsophisticated, the best option at this time seems to be Dr. Web’s online utility, which actually plugs into the botnet network created by the Flashback Trojan to check to see if your computer’s ID is present in its list of over 650,000 units. If you find that you have been stricken it is then a relatively simple task to locate a removal guide. The actual removal task is unfortunately not so simple, as the manual instructions from f-secure for example consist of eighteen separate steps that are definitely not for the faint of heart.

OS X 10.7 Lion Users Safe… unless They Installed Java Separately

It is important to note that any Mac user who is up to date with their operating system with OS X 10.7 Lion and has not separately installed the Java Runtime Environment cannot be affected by this attack, as there is no way for the Trojan to infect the computer. The last system to bundle Java was the previous OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, which is fully open to this sort of infection unless the Mac is equipped with free antivirus utilities such as ClamXav 2 or Sophos Anti-Virus For Mac Home Edition. There are also the paid variants such as Internet Security Barrier X6 and VirusBarrier X6.

The Utopian Virus-Proof View of Macs Has Collapsed

General rules of thumb for Mac users to avoid future attacks are to disable any Java installations and to use Chrome instead of Safari. Google’s browser runs an embedded sandboxed version of Flash which significantly diminishes the possibility that a hacker can infect your system.

Now that the Mac has fallen from its viral-free perch the question being widely asked in technical circles is how long it will be until iOS and Android feel the sting of the hacker attacks. With hundreds of millions of mobile web enabled devices extremely vulnerable we may find in the not too distant future that the viral nightmare may be extending its reach to our smartphones and tablets.