Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Homeland Security

For reasons some of which are elusive, I tend to be deemed by my peers as some sort of an authority when it comes to personal computing. As a result, I’m often asked for help with the latest virus infection, trojan infection, mysterious firewall alert, or just your average Windows error messages that warns you about a security threat and prevents you from ever using your PC again. Ever.
If anything, the rate in which I receive such queries is rather alarming, which is strange given that I hardly ever get any infections on my own PCs, and when I do it’s almost always a case where I know I was looking for trouble. But I do not seem to represent the majority of PC users out therel judging by the horror shows I have seen when dealing with relatives’ PCs during our recent family visit to the UK and Israel, I would say that I would consider myself a very daring person if I was to ever put one of my passwords to use on one of their PCs; now, that would be asking for trouble!
So, is there a solution to these security issues, or are we all doomed to live forever with a sword hanging on top of our PCs’ necks? Is there no option for my relatives but life in the virus mire?
Well, there is. It’s glaringly obvious and it became even more obvious to me during our overseas trip when I took out my miniature Asus Eee PC and surfed the internet in comfort while leaving my relatives’ PCs for the much needed rest they deserve. The answer is Linux.

It is really hard for Windows “trained” users to imagine, but Linux offers its users a world free of viruses, trojans or spyware; a world where security tools like firewalls do not require a doctorate and run in the background, where they belong; a world where anti-virus software is a tool you use in order to help friends running Windows based PCs get rid of their viruses.
Don’t get me wrong; Linux is not perfect and it has its security issues, too. However, there are key differences: First, being open sourced, Linux vulnerabilities are known to everyone and not hidden under some remote shelf in a some underground Microsoft dungeon; this means that solutions are quickly delivered and, in my case, as an Ubuntu user, automatically brought to my attention. Usually, solutions are delivered long before anyone vile enough is able to exploit them. And best of all, it’s all free!

So how does it work? How does Linux manage so well where Windows fails so miserably?
Well, don’t look at me as the ultimate authority there, but here’s the gist of it in a nutshell. It really is simple: In Linux, applications have a very limited and very carefully monitored list of rights. That is, there are just a few things they can do, and unless you give them the explicit authorization to do more they cannot do much wrong no matter how hard they try.
I’ll explain through a few examples. Let’s say that you’ve downloaded a trojan that tries to use your internet connection; it won’t be able to do so, because it doesn’t have the right to use the internet connection, because just a very few applications have this ability by default (with the internet browser being an obvious example). But can you download the trojan in the first place? No, because it is an application of sorts, and you need explicit authorization in order to install an application; similarly, the trojan cannot attach itself to your internet browser or to any other application, because unless you gave these some explicit authorization they are not allowed to change themselves.
The same applies for viruses. You can have a virus file on your Linux PC, but unless you explicitly let it run loose it would be just another harmless file on your PC, totally unable to do anything. Exactly why Linux is great for getting rid of viruses on a Windows partition or on a USB stick.
You may be aware that Windows is actually aspiring to have this same regime. There are, however, a few key differences: First, Windows was not designed with this regime in mind because it was never really designed from scratch with networking in mind, which means it all comes as patches on top. Second, because such a regime was never strictly enforced as a rule, most applications are badly written and require administration right to perform the way you would want them to perform; similarly, most of us log into our Windows PC with administrator rights, giving us permission to do what we like. That, however, is exactly what malicious software uses in order to get its way.
As I have said before, Linux is not perfect; work hard enough and you will find a way through its defences. But there lies the key: you really need to work hard for that, much harder than you would in a Windows environment. Because the number of Linux PC users is but a tiny fraction of Windows users, the lovely people who create malicious software have no reason to invest in cracking Linux.

My point with this post is simple: If you want a virtually carefree environment for your PC that requires hardly any maintenance, give Linux a try.
With Ubuntu, for example, you can get yourself a dual boot installation (where you choose whether you want to start Windows or Ubuntu whenever you restart your PC), thus allowing you to have the best of both worlds.
Once you give Ubuntu a chance, though, you won’t want to go back to Windows. For people like my family, whose understanding of the scope of threats facing their PCs is so limited, Ubuntu Linux is indeed the silver bullet. With Linux, they don't need to be particularly alert, and they will never need to be alarmed.

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