Mac Security: How Safe Is macOS?

Posted on Jun 14, 2024 by Elly Hancock

Are Macs the best option for keeping your information secure? Most would say they’re safer than Windows PCs. After all, Apple is well-known for its strong approach to security, especially when it comes to the App Store. That doesn’t mean you’re free from risks, though. OS vulnerabilities, app flaws, cybercriminal attacks, and human error could still compromise your Mac.

So just how safe is macOS? What are the best Mac security features? Should you trust your Mac with your data? Let’s find out as we unpack all the protection macOS has to offer.

Want to boost your Mac security protection? You can use PIA VPN to mask activity on your Mac with powerful encryption. This stops third parties, including trackers and cybercriminals, from watching what you’re up to and stealing your information. Our built-in blocker, MACE, also keeps harmful ads, malware, and trackers at bay so you can surf the web freely knowing your Mac is protected.

Mac Security: The Risk of Malware and Vulnerabilities

Mac security is tough to break through, but it’s not impossible. Several cybercriminals have targeted macOS systems in the past, showing people’s Mac devices are vulnerable to attack. 

Trojans and Malware

Even with macOS’s secure M1 chip, threats can still slip through the net. In 2021, reports surfaced of a trojan called Silver Sparrow that specifically targeted Macs using the M1 chip. It relied on the macOS installer to run a JavaScript API, so the trojan could make commands on users’ computers. Worryingly, Silver Sparrow was hard to detect precisely because it ran on the M1 chip, making it part of the Mac’s core processor.

Trojans and malware can find their way onto your Mac in other ways too. In October 2023, researchers discovered a Trojan disguising itself within a PDF document about cryptocurrency-related finance risks. Once downloaded, the BlueNoroff Trojan could install malware onto a person’s Mac and perform commands to gather information about their system. It could delete data from systems or copy it to a shared server whenever a user performs a command. This left many people’s information at risk of exposure and theft. 

OS Vulnerabilities

Like with any device, failing to keep your Mac up to date can expose you to vulnerabilities. System updates often include new features, but they’re also designed to patch security weaknesses and loopholes. Cybercriminals exploit these vulnerabilities to gain entry to your device. In some cases, they exploit these loopholes before Apple gets around to patching them. These are known as zero-day vulnerabilities. In 2023, Apple’s OS experienced a total of 19 zero-day vulnerabilities, 17 of which affected Mac users. The majority of these threats were rated as high severity, meaning they could risk the integrity and security of your system. 

In March 2024, news revealed Apple had failed to patch multiple critical OS vulnerabilities, despite having identified them back in September 2023. Apple had released security updates, macOS Sonoma 14.1 and one week later, macOS Sonoma 14.1.1, but these updates were minor and did not fix the issues. The vulnerabilities relate to outdated software in the command output, which could enable a cybercriminal to bypass authentication and continue running commands.

Mac users with older systems also face additional risks, because some of these are incapable of running the latest macOS. Without the newest updates, you can’t install patches to fix flaws in the system. It may be easier for a cybercriminal to exploit loopholes and find their way onto your Mac.

Malicious Apps

Apple vets every app before letting it onto the App Store to make sure it’s trustworthy and doesn’t house hidden malware. This doesn’t mean every risky app gets blocked though. Apple is often quick to remove any reportedly dodgy apps from the App Store, but if people have already downloaded them, the damage may already be done. One 2022 case revealed that seven Apple developer accounts were silently distributing malware onto Mac systems. The malware allowed these developers to bypass security checks and stay undetected on the App Store. The apps included PDF readers and editors, screen recorders, and video players. 

Even legitimate apps can compromise your Mac security if you leave them outdated. Like OS releases, app updates also include patches to fix security issues and bugs that could compromise your Mac.

Cyberthreats can also target you, specifically, by looking for ways to lure you in with risky links. This is common across all devices, and MacOS is no exception. As an example, Mac users were targeted with phishing messages containing fake Safari updates in March 2023. The Atomic Trojan drove users to a fake Apple-branded website to download Safari updates hiding malware. This gave cybercriminals access to browser-stored information like bank card details, logins, passwords, cookies, and even crypto wallet keys. It’s not always easy to identify a phishing link or fake website, which is why it’s important to think twice before you click.

Mac’s Built-In Security Features 

Despite some negative press, macOS is still one of the most secure operating systems. It’s constantly releasing new features designed to keep your information safe and stop cybercriminals from slipping through the cracks. Many of these features are already built-in and pre-enabled, but Macs also have a handful of features you can switch on or download to enhance your security further. 

Hardware and OS Security

Apple’s source code is closed, which prevents anyone other than Apple from modifying it. This makes it much harder for anyone to find loopholes that could exploit your system, including malicious hackers. As we’ve seen, it doesn’t mean the OS is completely hacker-proof though. Outsiders can still find their way through the closed system, but Apple has a host of other features designed to prevent unauthorized access and use.

The Apple M1 chip comes with a built-in Secure Enclave feature that encrypts all the data on your Mac automatically. The Secure Enclave stores your encryption keys, login data, biometric information like Face ID, and encrypted files to ensure only those with permission have access. It also runs in isolation from the rest of the main processor, limiting the attack surface if anyone does gain entry to your Mac. 

If someone gets through to the operating system, they can’t spread their attack to the Secure Enclave to steal your data. It requires additional authentication to ensure the encryption key fits the data stored there. For example, if you use Touch ID on your keyboard, the Secure Enclave verifies your fingerprint and ensures it’s a match, before granting access. 

Another standout feature is the Secure Boot. This protects your Mac from malware by validating the operating system when you turn it on. It scans the system to confirm all the software on the system is Apple-approved and hasn’t been tampered with or damaged. This feature is also included on iOS, but macOS offers more customization – with three security levels. You can choose between full, medium, or no security depending on how intense you want the verification checks to be. Full security is turned on by default. 

All Macs also come with a feature called System Integrity Protection. It’s designed to protect the operating system and kernel from infiltration by restricting all components to read-only accessibility. This prevents malicious code from modifying kernel components that could change the security settings of your Mac. 

App Security Control

Apple places strict controls over the apps it allows on the App Store. It carefully examines the backend, content, and design of each app before deciding whether it will be accepted. Apple calls this process App Review. This tries to prevent risky third-party apps from making it onto the store and infiltrating your Mac.

Even once an app is allowed on the App Store, your Mac will scan it again before you download it using the Gatekeeper feature. This confirms the authenticity of the app and ensures it’s Apple-approved. It also checks for potential malicious code before an app can run on your Mac, every time you launch it. If it detects any issues, Gatekeeper can stop the download or block the app from launching. 

MacOS also comes with advanced malware protection via Apple’s XProtect feature. This scans all apps on your Mac, including Apple-owned and recently installed apps, to detect and block threats before they can infect your device. 

System and Data Access

Your Mac holds all kinds of information, a lot of which includes sensitive and personal details about you. To help protect your data, MacOS has a FileVault feature that encrypts all data at rest with XTS-AES 128-bit encryption. This requires you to enter specific login credentials or use a cryptographic key after reboot so you can access files on your Mac. Essentially, it adds another layer of authentication to prevent outsiders from accessing your data without permission.

Screenshot of FileVault feature in MacOS

The Advanced Data Protection feature also installs additional encryption so that you can only decrypt your information on trusted devices pre-approved by you. If you lose any data, only you can recover it using the specific password and recovery key. This means if you lose your password or key the data is lost, and Apple doesn’t hold any keys to help you regain access to your data either.

Apple also sets rules for passwords to minimize the risk of unauthorized access. On Mac, it only enables ten password attempts to limit brute force attacks. After five incorrect password attempts, the Secure Enclave forces escalating time delays starting at one minute, up to one hour. After this time, any further attempts will disable your Mac.

To secure your passwords, Macs can also prompt you to create a passkey for your online accounts. For example, if you’re using a Magic Keyboard with Touch ID, you can sign in to your Google account using your fingerprint rather than typing a password. Unlike usernames and passwords, passkeys are uniquely generated, so it reduces the risk of anyone getting their hands on your credentials. These passkeys are then saved to the encrypted iCloud Keychain so you can use them across your other Apple devices. 

You also have control over app permissions to limit access to data on your Mac. All apps must ask for permission to access documents, downloads, and certain functions on your device, such as the microphone and camera. Some apps can also request to track your location and activity across other apps, but you can easily disable these functions in your settings. 

Screenshot of Location Services on MacOS

Safe Browsing

Safari is one of the more private browsers, with a suite of built-in features to keep your data secure and away from view. This includes Intelligent Tracking Prevention, which limits digital profiling by stopping trackers from gathering your information and following you to other sites. 

You also have a Fraudulent Website Warning on Safari, protecting you from potentially harmful sites hiding malware. It will alert you with a popup before loading a webpage to stop you from exposing yourself to potential security threats. 

One of Apple’s newest features includes the private relay, which is available with an iCloud+ subscription. This is a Safari-only feature that encrypts your data and generalizes your IP address to stop digital spies from seeing where you are or which websites you’re looking at. You can use this on Mac, but some systems don’t support it. It may also cause problems if you already have a VPN installed, and simultaneously turn on both the VPN and private relay. 

Apple’s private relay doesn’t offer as much protection as a Mac VPN though, since it only encrypts your data in Safari, not all web traffic leaving your device. It also only generalizes your IP address to one from the same region and country. A VPN encrypts your entire connection and lets you choose a server location from its network. This means you can get an IP address from anywhere in the world, depending on your provider.

Want to boost your Mac security protection? You can try PIA VPN to mask your Mac activities with powerful encryption. This stops third parties, including cybercriminals, from looking at your activity and stealing your information. Our built-in blocker, MACE, also keeps harmful ads, malware, and trackers at bay so you can surf the web freely knowing your Mac is protected.

Safari also uses the iCloud Keychain to store your passwords securely across all your Apple devices, preventing outsiders from stealing your credentials. If it detects weak or leaked passwords, the Password Monitoring feature alerts you to change them. 

Remote Security

Apple’s Find My app is one way to keep your Mac secure remotely. It can also help you track the computer down if it’s lost or stolen, even if it’s offline. Your other Apple devices will alert you if it thinks your Mac has been left behind, identifying its last known location. These signals to your devices are end-to-end encrypted, which means others can’t see the location of your Mac. All Macs using the M1 chip or T2 Security Chip also have the Activation Lock feature. This prevents anyone from erasing or modifying data on your Mac, which is especially important if you misplace it or it’s stolen. 

Lockdown Mode is another feature designed to help you if your Mac is stolen or lost. This feature alters your Mac functionality to stop people from gaining access to your data and spreading spyware. It completely stops or limits the use of specific apps, websites, and features, including Messages, Live Photos, FaceTime, and SharePlay. You also have to unlock your Mac to connect another accessory or device to it and provide explicit approval to enable the connection.

screenshot of Lockdown Mode on MacOS

Although Lockdown Mode doesn’t let you customize which apps and features get restricted, it gives you the choice of deciding which websites you can or can’t use when it’s enabled. You can edit these settings in Safari to exclude certain sites.

Third-Party Security Support

Alongside built-in security, Apple lets you download plenty of third-party apps to your Mac, including macOS VPNs. VPNs encrypt your Mac’s connection, stopping snoopers from spying on your online habits and data. This includes your app communications, browser activity, iCloud data, and traffic to linked devices – even on unsecured public Wi-Fi networks. A VPN also changes your IP address to one from another server location, which lets you switch your virtual location and stop cybercriminals from seeing where you are. 

If you’re looking for a premium Mac VPN, you can download Private Internet Access. PIA’s strict stance on privacy has been proven in US courts and we’ve had Deloitte verify our no-logs policy in an independent audit. PIA VPN uses robust encryption to secure all the web traffic leaving your Mac, preventing third parties from eavesdropping on you. You can connect to our secure VPN servers all over the world to change your Mac location to anywhere you like. Best of all, you get unlimited simultaneous connections to protect all of your Apple devices at once.

How to Increase Your Mac Security

Even with MacOS’s built-in features, you should still take steps to protect your security:

  • Install updates: Be sure to install system and app updates when they’re released. Updates patch vulnerabilities and repair security loopholes that could compromise your Mac.
  • Use strong passwords: Choose hard-to-guess, unique passwords for your accounts, including your Mac login. Your Mac will prompt you to choose strong passwords, and it’ll store these for you in your iCloud keychain so you don’t need to remember them.
  • Install antivirus software: MacOS’s Gatekeeper and XProtect features help to keep malware and other risks at bay, but it’s worth adding more antivirus protection to secure your Mac. You can download Apple-approved antivirus software from the App Store.
  • Use a VPN: Download a VPN to help keep your Mac activity and information away from cybercriminals. PIA VPN secures your traffic with robust encryption, stopping cyberspies from seeing what you’re doing online or stealing your data in transit. It also protects your Mac and other devices on risky networks like public Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • Review settings: Take a minute to go through app permissions on your Mac, especially for third-party apps. Many gather information about you, including your location and activity on other apps and websites. Consider removing most permissions, except the ones an app really needs to function, to limit how much data you share.

Are Macs the Safest Option? 

No tech device is 100% safe, even Macs. That said, macOS is still one of the safest options, even when compared to Linux, Windows, and other operating systems. Advanced encryption, malware protection, remote security, and Safari’s private browsing make Macs a strong choice if you’re looking to keeping your computer and information safe. 

If you want to strengthen your Mac’s security even more, consider downloading a VPN. PIA VPN encrypts your Mac traffic with powerful algorithms, so third parties monitoring you or wanting to steal your information can’t see what you’re doing online. PIA VPN’s MacOS app also comes with a built-in ad, malware, and tracker blocker called MACE, which stops harmful domains before they can infect your Mac. It’s risk-free to try with a 30-day money-back guarantee.


Is macOS really secure?

macOS is one of the safest operating systems available. It comes with automatic security features such as file encryption, malware protection, and tough access controls to prevent unwanted snoopers from getting into your device and data. Apple also stringently reviews every app on the App Store to ensure they’re trustworthy. Macs still come with security risks, though, including OS vulnerabilities and outdated apps. You can also put your Mac at risk by clicking on phishing links or downloading harmful software.

Does macOS have built-in security?

Yes, macOS has some of the best built-in security features. Macs encrypt your information using Secure Enclave and FileVault, stopping unauthorized access to your data. They also have pre-installed malware protection through the Gatekeeper and XProtect features, which scan new downloads and installed apps for any malicious behavior. You can boost your Mac security even further with a VPN. PIA VPN encrypts your information and conceals your online traffic from third parties, stopping them from gathering your data or stealing sensitive information.

Is it necessary to have antivirus for Mac?

MacOS provides advanced malware protection with XProtect and Gatekeeper. These features automatically run in the background, scanning recent downloads and installed apps for any vulnerabilities. Loopholes are still possible though, and cybercriminals have managed to bypass Apple’s strict checks in the past. You may wish to increase protection for your Mac by downloading Apple-approved antivirus software from the App Store.

Are Macs safe from hackers?

No. Macs may be one of the safest devices out there, but it isn’t hacker-proof. Malicious hackers have exploited Macs in the past. This is often through phishing links or risky apps hiding viruses, but some clever hackers have infiltrated devices at the OS level, finding loopholes in Apple’s software. Apple is usually quick to patch known issues, though this can be after these vulnerabilities have already been exploited in the wild.

Are Macs safer than Windows?

Macs are known to experience fewer cyber attacks and threats than Windows. Macs also come with more advanced security features, like App Review, malware protection, file encryption, and secure browsing via Safari. This doesn’t mean Macs are immune to cybercriminals’ tactics though. Malware-ridden apps can still find their way onto the App Store and infect your device. You’re also still at risk of phishing links, whether you use Mac or Windows.