One of the reasons people turn to Linux is that it has better security. Once you switch to Linux, the thinking continues, you no longer have to worry about viruses and other types of malware. But while this is mostly true in practice, desktop Linux isn’t really all that secure.
If a virus wants to destroy the store on your free and open source desktop, there’s a good chance it can.
Why Malware Is Less Common on Linux Desktops
Malware is unwanted code that somehow gets onto your computer to perform functions designed with malicious intent. Sometimes these programs slow down the machine or cause it to crash completely. The creator can then demand a ransom to repair the machine.
Sometimes malware uploads information to a remote server, giving someone access to your stored data or vital credentials you type, such as passwords and credit card numbers.
People tend to create malware for Windows because that is the operating system found on most PCs. This increases the chance that the virus will spread from one computer to another.
Virus creators tend to target less technical users who are easier to fool with fake web banners and phishing scams. Viruses also spread among people who know how to pirate music and TV shows but don’t understand how these files can get infected.
Linux Desktop Malware Exists, But It’s Rare
A piece of malware recently made the news to target Linux desktops. EvilGNOME runs on the GNOME desktop environment pretending to be an extension.
GNOME is the most common Linux desktop environment, found as the default interface on the two most popular Linux distributions, Ubuntu and Fedora, and on computers shipped directly from Linux manufacturers such as System76 and Purism. Legitimate extensions allow you to change many aspects of the GNOME desktop.
The malware known as EvilGNOME can take screenshots and record audio from your PC’s microphone. It can also upload your personal files. More detailed details are available in the report by Intezer Labs, which gave EvilGNOME its name.
This malware does not attract attention because it is very likely to affect a lot of people. It is considered newsworthy because it exists.
Most Linux Malware Target Servers
Linux is relatively rare on desktops, but it is the most prominent operating system found on servers that power the web and manage much of the world’s digital infrastructure.
Many attacks target websites rather than PCs. Hackers often look for vulnerabilities in network daemons that they can use to gain access to Linux-backed servers. Some will install malicious scripts on servers which then target visitors rather than the system itself.
Hacking a Linux-powered machine, whether it’s a server or an IoT device, is one way to infect the web or create a botnet.
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Linux Design Is Inherently Insecure
The Linux desktop in its current form is not a fortress. Compared to Windows XP, where malicious software can gain administrator access without asking for a password, Linux offers much better security. Currently, Microsoft has made changes to close that gap. Since Vista, Windows has issued a prompt.
But worrying about the security of system files is almost off the mark. Most of the data we care about is not stored in our root system folder. This is the personal data in our home directory which is irreplaceable and most open. Software on Linux, malicious or not, does not require your password to access this data and share it with others.
User accounts can also run scripts that activate your microphone, turn on your webcam, hit the log button, and record what happens on the screen.
In other words, it hardly matters how secure the Linux kernel is, or the protections that surround various system components, if it’s vulnerabilities in applications and desktop environments that can put the data you care about most at risk.
EvilGNOME does not install itself among your system files. It hides in a hidden folder in your home directory. On the positive side, it makes it easier to remove. But you have to know it was there first.
4 Reasons Why Linux Is Relatively Safe to Use
While Linux is not immune to exploits, in everyday use it still provides a much more secure environment than Windows. Here are some reasons.
Multiple Distros, Environments and System Components
Application developers have a hard time developing for Linux because there are so many versions to support. The same challenges face malware creators. What is the best way to hack into someone’s computer? Are you sneaking code in DEB or RPM format?
You can try to exploit the vulnerability in the Xorg display server or in certain windows composer, only to find that the user has something else installed.
App Store and Package Manager Protect Linux Users
Traditional Linux package management systems place application maintainers and reviewers between users and their software sources. As long as you get all your software from these trusted sources, you are unlikely to encounter anything harmful.
Avoid copying and pasting command line instructions to install software, especially when you don’t know exactly what the command does and you’re unsure of its source.
New Technologies That Actively Consider Security
New app formats like Flatpak and Snap introduce permissions and sandboxes, limiting what apps can access. The new Wayland display server can prevent apps from taking screenshots or recording what’s happening on the screen, making them harder to exploit.
Open Source Code for Everyone
The main advantage of Linux comes from being able to see the code. Because Linux is open source rather than proprietary, you don’t have to worry about the desktop itself working against you, acting as spyware itself or suffering from undisclosed exploits for commercial reasons.
Even if you can’t understand the code, you can read a blog post or report from someone who did.
Should You Be Afraid of Linux Malware
It’s a myth that Linux users shouldn’t have to worry about viruses, but if you stick with your distro’s app store or another trusted source like Flathub, you’re unlikely to find anything dangerous.
No matter what operating system you use, it’s important that you adopt safe digital habits. Don’t make the mistake of believing that switching to Linux means you can download from incomplete sites without worry.
But for most of us, the biggest risk is probably not malware. If you have created multiple accounts online or rely on cloud services, phishing scams are a much bigger threat to your data, whether you use Linux or not.
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