Utility software

MacScan 2.1

Designed for security-conscious Mac users, MacScan 2.1 does two things: It scans your hard drive for spyware and other malware that has surreptitiously slipped onto your system and it cleans up the traces left behind by Web browsing—your browser history, cache, and cookies. But the question is: Do we really need a separate application to do either?

MacScan’s primary function is to search your Mac for spyware—a specific type of malware designed to steal your personal information—as well as keystroke loggers and Trojans. It offers three types of scans: Quick (which checks just your home folder), Full (which checks your entire hard drive), and Custom (which will check whatever folders you tell it to). SecureMac maintains a list of current spyware threats that the program can scan for; if you set the program preferences to “Automatically check for program updates,” those spyware definitions should update themselves whenever SecureMac updates its central list.

In addition to looking for spyware, MacScan cleans up after your Web browser. Many Web sites keep track of your visits by leaving cookies on your computer. Most Web browsers keep a history list showing the sites you’ve visited (to make it easier to get back to them) and a cache containing the actual content of the Web pages you visited (to speed up page-loading). MacScan can wipe clean such information in Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Netscape.

In my testing, MacScan performed both functions as advertised. Yet, even within its limited scope, the program leaves much to be desired. For one thing, it’s slow. That’s partly due to the fact that it rescans files it’s previously scanned; it’d be nice if MacScan could simply skip files that haven’t been modified since its last scan, the way antivirus apps do. Additionally, the program offers no estimate of how long your scan will take. Instead of a progress bar, MacScan shows a “barber pole” that just keeps spinning.

But the biggest problem with the program is that neither of its two core functions—scanning for spyware and cleaning up after your Web browser—is particularly necessary. There simply aren’t many actual examples of Mac OS X spyware to worry about. Of the 40-plus threats listed on the MacScan Web site, for example, many apply only to OS 9. And you can already configure most Web browsers not to collect cookies, caches, and other traces of past activity or to erase such information after it’s been collected.

Macworld buying advice

While Windows users might need a dedicated spyware-catcher, I’m not convinced there’s a real need for such specific Mac software. And it’s simple enough to clean up after your browser yourself. For those two reasons, despite the fact that it takes care of its business reasonably well, most users can probably live without MacScan.

[ Mark H. Anbinder is a senior technical consultant at Cornell University and a contributing editor of TidBITS. ]

MacScan finds the digital detritus left over from browsing the Web—but most browsers can do the same thing.
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