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Monday, June 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Mac security smugness a no-no

Seattle Times staff columnist

Apple Computer's new ads making fun of Windows PCs are hilarious.

But like much of what you see on TV, they're just fluffy entertainment, and you have to watch out for the spin. Especially the part about Macs being safer to use than PCs. That may be true for now, but the world of computer security is changing. New threats are emerging, and clinging to stereotypes is a weak defense.

The ads are a compilation of the "broken Windows" chestnuts that Silicon Valley executives have used in keynote speeches and Rotary Club meetings for the past 20 years.

They've got a dorky guy in a suit representing Windows PCs. He's sick with viruses, crashing and pathetically uncool, even after he buys an iPod. Most unfortunately, he looks a little like me.

Macs are represented by a young hipster in a T-shirt. He's smooth and helpful, and he hits it off with a Japanese woman in a dress representing a digital camera.

I don't want to enter one of those tedious techie debates about which system is better and who fixes vulnerabilities faster. What I'm concerned about is the risky message that Apple is sending to people using its generally terrific computers.

By smugly asserting that Macs are ultrasecure, Apple leaves the impression that its customers can let down their guard. It's like a carmaker saying with a wink that its vehicles are so safe that you don't need to worry about your seat belt.

Meanwhile, Macs are likely to be the target of more computer attacks as the systems become more popular.

At the same time, Windows is becoming more secure than ever. One reason Vista is taking so long is that customers are telling Microsoft to tone down some of its security features. It's also getting easier to protect PCs, with new subscription services from Microsoft and others that automatically patch and update systems.

Broad worm attacks, like the ones that crippled PCs a few years ago, have tapered off. Of bigger concern now are criminal scams that target individuals, often via e-mail seeking personal information, regardless of their type of computer.

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At least, that's what I'm hearing from the nerdy guys in suits.

Take David Mackey, a former Army intelligence analyst who now leads IBM's threat-assessment group in Boulder, Colo. He was in Seattle a while ago telling business and government security managers what to watch out for this year.

High on his list: attacks on Apple's OS X operating system.

Apple is switching its computers from IBM to Intel processors, but that's not the reason for the warning, Mackey said.

"It's not sour grapes," he insisted. "It's really this idea that as the proliferation of OS X and Apple computers becomes more pronounced, it's also going to become a new target."

Broad PC attacks tapered off last year in part because improvements in hardware and software are making it harder to attack at the operating-system level, Mackey said.

IBM is now finding more vulnerabilities in software applications. Mackey expects more attacks via instant-messaging programs, for instance.

Mackey's advice to consumers: First, pay attention to bank and credit-card statements and watch for fraud. Then be sure to use antivirus software and a firewall.

"A lot of Mac users aren't used to thinking about security," he told me.

Apple's ads aren't helping.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to change out of this suit and start shopping for an iPod.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. He blogs during the week at seattletimes.com/brierdudleysblog. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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