Mac users have long believed that their computers are immune to the kinds of malware and viruses that plague Windows PCs. While there is some credibility in this idea, we should not get overconfident when it comes to Mac security, as there are exploits that criminals can use to hack into your Mac and leave it as a wide-open door through which they can steal your data or worse.
In this article, we’ll look at if Macs can be hacked, how to tell if your Mac has been hacked or if someone is spying on your Mac, and what to do if your Mac is being used remotely. Here’s what you need to know – and what you need to do.
Can Macs be hacked?
Apple has gone to great lengths to make it difficult for hackers to gain access to Macs. With the protection offered by Gatekeeper, the Secure Enclave features of the M1 and M2 series chips and the T1 or T2 chip, and Apple’s built-in anti-virus XProtect, targeting Macs by hackers can be considered too much effort. considered. We’ll discuss this in more detail here: How secure is a Mac? and in Do Macs Need Antivirus Software?
However, from time to time, security vulnerabilities are detected that can be used by hackers to abuse Macs. These vulnerabilities are sometimes referred to as backdoors or zero day vulnerabilities. When identified by security researchers (or friendly hackers), they usually warn Apple in hopes that the company will close the vulnerability soon, soon — or within zero days — before it’s exploited.
Such vulnerabilities, while rare, could give an attacker root access to your Mac.
Apple is usually quick to fix, but there have been instances where Apple has been criticized for being slow to respond to the threat once it was identified.
For example, researcher Filippo Cavallarin discovered a Gatekeeper vulnerability in 2019 that he drew Apple’s attention to. After not receiving a response from Apple within 90 days, he went public with details of the vulnerability.
In 2018, the news was filled with stories of the Meltdown and Specter flaws attacking vulnerabilities in Intel and ARM processors. The Guardian reported that Apple has confirmed, “All Mac systems and iOS devices are affected, but there are currently no known exploits affecting customers.” The risk was mitigated by operating system updates that sealed off the exposed areas.
More recently, Apple paid a student $100,000 after discovering a dangerous vulnerability related to Macs and reporting it to Apple. The vulnerability, which could allow a hacker to get hold of a Mac user’s camera, was identified by Ryan Pickren in July 2021 and fixed by Apple on October 25, 2021 in macOS Monterey 12.0.1. Learn more here: Hacker Could Take Over Any Apple Webcam’.
Apple is busy patching these security vulnerabilities as they occur. If the company releases a macOS update with a security component, it’s important to install it as soon as possible. You can set your Mac to download and update automatically. To do this, follow these steps:
Open System Preferences.
Click Software Update.
Select Keep my Mac up to date automatically.
Now your Mac will check for updates, download the update and install the update without you having to do anything.
Are Macs being hacked?
It may be rare compared to Windows, but yes, there have been instances where Macs have been used by hackers.
This can take different forms and there are different types of Mac malware that have been discovered ‘in the wild’ on Macs, as you can see from the different threats to macOS: List of Mac Viruses, Malware and Security Flaws. Malware has even been found on the M1 Mac – read about Silver Sparrow and the first case of malware for M1 Macs.
We’ll go through the types that are more relevant to hacking Macs below:
cryptojacking: This is where someone uses your Mac’s processor and RAM to mine cryptocurrency. If your Mac has slowed down at all, this could be the culprit.
Spyware: Here, hackers try to collect sensitive data about you, such as your login details. They can use keyloggers to record what you type and ultimately have the information they need to log into your accounts. In one example, the OSX/OpinionSpy spyware stole data from infected Macs and sold it on the dark web.
Ransomware: Some criminals use Ransomware to try to extort money from you. In cases like KeRanger, hackers may have encrypted files on Macs and then charge money to decrypt them. Fortunately, security researchers identified KeRanger before it started infecting Macs, so it was addressed before it became a serious threat.
botnet: In this case, your computer becomes a remote spam machine. In the case of the Trojan horse botnet OSX.FlashBack, more than 600,000 Mac computers.
Proof of concept: Sometimes the threat isn’t actually seen in the wild, but is a proof of concept based on a loophole or vulnerability in Apple’s code. While this is less of a threat, the concern is that if Apple isn’t fast enough to patch the vulnerability, it could be used by criminals. In one example, Google’s Project Zero team designed a proof-of-concept known as Buggy Cos that could access parts of macOS thanks to a bug in macOS’ memory management.
Port exploits: It is not always the case that the hack is made possible by some kind of malware downloaded on the Mac. In some cases, Macs have been hacked after something is plugged into a port. It’s possible that Macs can be hacked through the USB and Thunderbolt port – which is a good reason to always be careful about what you plug into your Mac or leave your Mac unattended. For example, in the checkm8 exploit, it would have been possible for hackers to access the T2 chip by connecting a custom USB-C cable. Similarly, in the case of Thunderspy, a serious vulnerability to the Thunderbolt port could have allowed a hacker to access a Mac.
Can a Mac camera be hacked?
Once a hacker gains access to your Mac, there are several ways they can try to obtain information about you or use your Mac’s processing power for their own purposes. As we mentioned above, in the case of spyware, the hacker can try to install a keylogger so that it can record what you type and look for your password. The hacker may also try to hack into your microphone or video camera.
Theoretically, this shouldn’t be possible: Since the launch of macOS Catalina in 2019, Apple has protected Mac users from these kinds of exploits by requiring you to give permission before using the microphone or video camera, or before a screen recording can take place. And when your video camera is in use, you’ll always see a green light next to it. However, the example cited above, where Ryan Pickren warned Apple of a vulnerability that could allow a hacker to gain control of a Mac user’s camera, suggests that Apple’s warning wasn’t enough to stop access to the camera.
There was also a camera-related vulnerability that affected Mac users of the video conferencing service Zoom. In this case, hackers can add users to video calls without their knowledge and then activate their webcams, but leave the lights off. This would allow potential hackers (or law enforcement agencies) to monitor your activities and you would have no idea the camera was watching you. Zoom patched the vulnerability, but only after it became public knowledge when the person who found it reported that the flaw had been left in place for three months after the company was privately notified of the risk. For more information, read How to Prevent Your Mac Webcam from Being Hacked.
Wondering if FaceTime is safe? Read Is Apple FaceTime Safe?
How do you know if your Mac has been hacked
If you think your Mac has been hacked, there are a few ways to find out. Look for the Signs First: Has Your Mac Been Slowing Down? Is your internet connection painfully slow? Do the ads you see look a little more dodgy than usual? Have you noticed anything strange on your bank statements?
If you believe an account has been hacked, check the haveibeenpwned.com website and enter your email address to see if there has been a data breach. If this is the case, you need to change your password! This doesn’t mean you’ve been hacked, but it’s certainly possible that if this information is available, you could be.
Another way to see if there is any strange activity going on is to check Activity Monitor and look specifically at network activity.
You can also go to System Preferences > Sharing and check if suspicious people have access to anything.
Your best bet is to search your system with some sort of security software that can check for viruses or malware that have entered your system. We’ve rounded up the best Mac antivirus apps, which we recommend Intego as our option.
You might also like to read our guide on how to remove a virus from a Mac.
How to protect your Mac from hackers
macOS is a very secure system, so there’s no need to panic, but if you want to reduce the chance of a break-in, there are a few things you need to do.
The first is to try to download software only from the Mac App Store or the official manufacturers websites.
You should also avoid clicking on links in emails, in case they lead you to spoof websites and malware.
Do not use USB cables, other cables, or memory sticks if you are not sure they are safe.
When you browse the web, you surf in private or incognito mode.
If you ever receive a ransomware request or a phishing email, don’t respond as this is just confirming you exist.
Another is to make sure you download updates for macOS as soon as they become available, as they usually include security patches. You can even set your Mac to download such updates automatically. Turn on Automatic Updates in System Preferences > Software Update and click next to Keep my Mac up to date automatically.
Finally, consider using a dedicated security software package. You will find our selection of current offerings in the best Mac antivirus. Right now our top picks are Intego Mac Internet Security X9but we also like McAfee Total Protection 2021 and Norton 360 Deluxe.
Also consider using a password manager as this allows you to have multiple, complicated login details for all your accounts without having to remember them. Here are our recommendations LastPass, 1Password and NordPass.
Do you feel more confident now? Learn even more by reading the helpful tips in the best Mac security settings.