Can Macs get viruses?

See how computer viruses work on Discovery Channel's series, "Sci-Fi Saved My Life."
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In the Spring of 2000, the three words "I love you" were heard by a lot more Windows users than Mac users. Were Mac users less lucky in love? Not necessarily, but a major virus attack occurred on May 5 of that year -- a virus spread using e-mail, with the alluring subject line, "I love you." Yet another PC-based virus.

While Windows users suffered the attack, Mac users watched on the sidelines, probably laughing to themselves and to anyone else who'd listen, thinking they were safe from infection. But are Macs really immune to digital attack, or are other factors at play?

Since launching its first Mac in January 1984, Apple has built a loyal following around simplicity of design and ease of use. Talk to most people who use a Mac, and they'll swear they're impervious to the attacks Windows users are used to. It just wouldn't happen to them. It couldn't. Could it?

Biological viruses are those unwholesome, parasitic creatures that make us miserable when we catch the flu or a cold. Computer viruses are just a digital version. Surely an operating system like the Mac's could never get a virus, right? I mean, look at the design of the screen. And that beautiful case. So clean. So simple. So pure. So … unviruslike.

And it's completely true that Macs aren't affected by PC viruses. Unfortunately that clean, stylish design does not protect Macs from Mac viruses. That smooth facade offers no more protection to a computer being attacked by a Mac virus than a pretty paint job does to protect a car in a head-on collision. So why don't Macs get infected more often? There must be something else going on.

To get to the bottom of this, let's first take a look at what exactly a virus is, how they work, and how their lifecycles could take advantage of your Mac.