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I have two semi-related questions about the security-related reasons I hear for switching to Ubuntu over Windows 7 (or from other Windows OSs to other Linux distributions).

  1. Someone people say that Ubuntu is less of a target for malware, spyware etc. I've heard arguments that many attacks are written specifically for Windows computers because Windows is a more common OS. If this is the case, doesn't this logic essentially adhere to the 'security through obscurity' mentality that is generally frowned upon?

  2. I assume that malware can also be written for Ubuntu, so why do I rarely hear about Ubuntu being more secure? What other security advantages are there to switch to Ubuntu, or another Linux distribution more generally? (I realize that certain distros might have strengths and weaknesses so just specify Ubuntu if the variances are too large.)

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If this is the case, doesn't this logic essentially adhere to the 'security through obscurity' mentality that is generally frowned upon?

Security through obscurity is only frowned upon when used instead of a more fundamentally effective control. Typically it is best to apply multiple layers of security, and it is perfectly acceptable and beneficial to use obscurity as one of those layers.

For example it's fine to name the text file storing your encryption keys something obscure in the hope that if someone compromises your system they won't be able to find it, but don't put that text file in a publicly accessible place just because it's named something obscure.

Using your scenario, it's fine to derive security benefits from running a less common platform - but don't forgo other controls such as a firewall and general security concious behaviour just because you're running Ubuntu.

What other security advantages are there to switch to Ubuntu, or another Linux distribution more generally?

There is nothing that makes Linux fundamentally more secure. Some controls may be implemented or applied differently, but there is nothing that makes Windows outright less secure. Plenty of people can and do run highly secure systems on Windows.

It's possible that on average fewer security issues occur on Linux, but if that's the case then it's probably due to a combination of secondary factors such as:

  • Linux users in general are likely to be more security concious, not click on popups, open dodgy attachments, etc.
  • Linux users are less likely to operate in a privileged environment (eg. by default not running as root vs. a lot of people who turn off UAC on Windows)
  • Arguably it's easier to update vulnerable software using a package manager on Linux

On the other hand, there's several factors which cause me to believe OS choice isn't that significant in terms of security overall:

  • It's not that common that OS vulnerabilities are primarily responsible for an intrusion. More often the malware gets in via a vulnerability in some other application or by user error, which then might exploit the OS once in.
  • Arguably Linux users are more valuable targets on average because they're more likely to have access to other systems, servers and production code.
  • Linux has the majority in the web server market, and there's plenty of both successful and unsuccessful attacks, malware, and vulnerabilities for Linux in this domain
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    Thanks for the nuanced answer I think that really gets at a lot of the question. Would you be concerned at all about the proprietary nature of Windows systems in any way compromising their security? Also, I think I'm leaning toward believing that OS vulnerabilities are less common than malware vulnerabilities, easier to trick a user into doing something stupid than understanding an OS well enough to find a hole. – Fernando Dec 20 '14 at 7:52
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Ubuntu (or any Linux distro) is less a target for malware because it's less common - if you had a limited amount of time to spend developing malware, would you make it for an OS that the majority uses or do it for the one a minority uses ?

As for the security by obscurity part, Linux distros don't base their security on top of the fact that they're less popular and thus less likely to be malware targets... sure, that's the case, but it's not because of that fact that developers will use that as an excuse for writing vulnerable software, and the fact that the code is open source means vulnerabilities are usually found and fixed way faster than in proprietary OSes.

However, if the user is stupid and installs/executes anything he finds on the web (cracks/keygens, toolbars, or even credit card generators - I'm serious, every so often I stumble upon a script kiddie's video showing off his VB6 skills with a badly designed GUI and a lame attempt at malware) then no OS nor antivirus will save him, because once you intentionally install something and click through the permission prompts (user account control in Windows, root password request in Linux) then the system considers the user knows what he's doing and obeys the orders, in this case it'll execute the malicious code and the machine is compromised.

If you're only switching to Ubuntu for the so-called "immunity to malware" then stop right now and read again what I just wrote above. While you may get away with most of the malware because it's designed for Windows, one day will come when you'll stumble upon some awesome media player or l33t hack utility with a big "Download for Ubuntu" button on their site... because you're careless and used to the so-called "immunity", you'll execute it and your machine will be compromised. Note that detecting what OS you use to serve the appropriate flavor of the malware is just a matter of comparing User-Agent strings and setting the link based on that.

  • Thanks for the nuanced answer I think that really gets at a lot of the question. Would you be concerned at all about the proprietary nature of Windows systems in any way compromising their security? It seems like there are also some good points about the benefits of open source for security. Also, I think I'm leaning toward believing that OS vulnerabilities are less common than malware vulnerabilities - seems easier to trick a user into doing something stupid than understanding an OS well enough to find a hole. – Fernando Dec 20 '14 at 7:56
  • @Fernando there are a lot of corporations who run Windows (banks, etc) and are still secure, so the proprietary nature of Windows doesn't look that bad to me in terms of security (it's a different matter about privacy though, that's why I also use a Linux system on an encrypted partition so Mr. NSA can't see what he's not supposed to see ;), and yeah the number one weakness is always the user. – user42178 Dec 20 '14 at 17:14
  • Fair enough, I guess the banks example basically proves windows security for against non-NSA actors. I'm sure they hold onto those OS exploits very secretly. – Fernando Dec 20 '14 at 18:25
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Well a quick and dirty answer is that Ubuntu runs off of the Debian core which has a huge development community. Thus if a vulnerability is found a patch is written very quickly where as in windows they have their cycled patch Tuesday that happens once a month. But there is truth to saying that more malicious code exists for windows that targets the home user simply because it has a larger consumer base.

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