Linux vs. Windows: Which is Most Secure?

A point by point comparison of the two OSes, with a subjective conclusion as to which offers better security. Plus: some thoughts on Apple security.
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I’m more secure on Linux than I am on Windows. Yup, that’s right. I have no doubt whatsoever that I am.

I started down this path by comparing how secure I am on a Mac vs. on Windows, then I compared Mac vs. Linux. To complete that trifecta, I guess it’s only fair to compare the end-user data security aspects of Windows against Linux.

Before I get into my rationale, though, just a little more background is in order. I started using a UNIX desktop way back in college and was always comfortable there. At my first couple of jobs after college, I mostly used UNIX workstations from Dec and Sun as my primary desktops.

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Later, I started using Windows-based systems at the office, but never felt quite at home. I was constantly frustrated by the frequent reboots, lack of serious security capabilities (from my perspective), and such. Then, following a brief foray in OS/2, I quickly gravitated to running Linux at home so I could once again have a real multi-tasking working environment.

Nowadays, my primary desktop is on a Macbook Pro – the best computer I’ve ever owned, without any doubt.

But, I still run a Debian Linux infrastructure for my company, with a couple Samba servers at its core. It’s not uncommon for the Linux systems to go over a year in between reboots. And, I still use XP on another laptop from time to time, generally when a customer requires it or I absolutely must run something like ActiveX controls on a web site. I try my best to learn how to best use the security features of each OS I use, naturally.

So, with that background in mind, it’s clear my views are somewhat biased. However, I consider myself very open-minded and will always give credit where it’s due. Heck, some of my best friends use Windows (but I do my best to talk them into OS X anyway).

True to UNIX. It’s tough to be entirely fair here, since Windows isn’t UNIX in any sense. But my point here is that Linux does follow the security features and capabilities it inherited from UNIX quite closely. In particular, the notion of an administrative (root) user that maintains and operates the system, and desktop users who only run the software on the system, is completely ingrained in most Linux distributions.

Now it’s true that many Linux users ignore these features and run all their software from a root-level account anyway, but that’s a choice that they’ve made. The system defaults to protecting the operating system components from its user’s actions (intentional or otherwise). That feature alone must account in large degree for the dearth of viruses and other malicious vermin on Linux and UNIX platforms.

Windows, on the other hand, started life as a single user system, with that single user being all-powerful. Although that’s no longer the case, the general attitude can still be found in many Windows-based software products – many of which just can’t be installed and/or run properly without desktop administrator privileges. This is all changing for the better, but it took Microsoft far too long to adopt this default-secure configuration practice.

Qualitative score: Windows gets a D+ while Linux gets an A-.

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