Posts Tagged ‘Linux’

Want to start an endless debate with a room full of techies? Assert that a particular operating system — pick any — is more secure than all the rest then sit back and watch the factions form. Some will argue that Mac OS X wins because of the relatively small number of known malware exploits as contrasted with Windows. Others will point to Linux’s built-in security model as superior to the competition. Windows fans will point to a vastly improved track record in the security area over the past decade. Still others will say that the mainframe’s z/OS and it’s related predecessors have proven their strength over the long haul running many of the world’s most critical transactions since the 1960’s.

Who’s right? Answer: I’ve used them all and I would say it’s none of them and all of them. Macs aren’t immune to malware as Apple’s own employees found out — the hard way.  Windows wears the largest bull eye by virtue of its pervasive presence in the market so it will always victimized by bad guys. Linux’s strong security features may be beyond the grasp of casual users. z/OS has benefitted from something of a “security by obscurity” position, which means latent vulnerabilities could be there for the taking.

Not a very satisfying answer is it? Maybe a better way to rephrase the question would be not “which is the most secure?” but rather “which is the most securable?”  The latter takes into account a larger understanding of the role of the user/administrator in the security ecosystem. In other words, it’s not just about technology but also people and process as well.

Yet another way to look at it is to say that the most secure OS is the one that you configure and use properly. The fact is that any of these options can be good or bad depending on how they are deployed and executed. That’s my answer. Now I’ll sit back and watch the various OS fanboys fight it out …


P.S. Here’s a nice write up on “Four easy ways to protect your Mac from malware,” which is a question I get from time to time.

If you thought your choice of operating system, hardware platform, middleware stack or applications would shield you from malware, think again. If it’s operational, it can be hacked. Period. Certainly some configurations are more vulnerable than others but there’s no such thing as a “secure” system — just varying degrees of INsecurity.

I remember a protracted email debate I had with a colleague many years ago on this subject. His claim, essentially, was that the security model of Linux made it immune to malware. As a security guy, I knew better.

At the time Windows was being ravaged by viruses and Linux was emerging as a more stable, secure alternative. Some were speculating that it would supplant Windows as the leading desktop OS within a few years. Of course, that didn’t happen — at least not yet. Linux has some very clear advantages. Some derive from a kernel for which secure design was not an afterthought and yet others from the collective talents and contributions of the open source community.

Still it isn’t perfect as this story from PCWorld shows. In what is just the latest development in the never ending malware saga, the “Hand of Thief” Trojan, which specifically targets Linux, is starting to pop up. As the article says…

Hand of Thief operates a lot like similar malware that targets Windows machines—once installed, it steals information from web forms, even if they’re using HTTPS, creates a backdoor access point into the infected machine, and attempts to block off access to antivirus update servers, virtual machines, and other potential methods of detection.

Clearly, there are far more instances of malware for Windows than Linux — far more — but equally clearly, Linux is not immune. Neither is Mac OX nor Android nor iOS nor any other OS you’d like to name. In fact, the first malware I personally ran across infected the VM operating system on mainframes back in 1987. Yes, 1987. Years before the press would start reporting on the latest virus scare and long before commercial anti-virus tools even existed and all of this on a platform that was considered quite secure and unlikely to be compromised easily.

The article goes on to say…

Historically, desktop Linux users have been more or less isolated from the constant malware scares that plague Windows, which is at least partially a function of the fact that their numbers represent a tiny fraction of the Windows installed base.

That last phrase is important. It basically is saying that part of the reason Linux hasn’t had a lot of malware really has nothing to do with the merits of it’s innate security capabilities, but rather, due to the fact that it simply hasn’t had as big of a bull’s eye painted on it. Mac OS has historically benefitted from the same “security by obscurity” model but it’s not one you want to bank on. Not surprisingly as Mac’s have become more popular in the marketplace, they have also become more popular in the malware threatspace. Ditto for Linux. Ditto for iOS and Android.

Call it the price of success. If a platform becomes popular it can’t hide from hackers as easily. So, the best thing to do is to take prudent precautions regardless of what OS you’re running on because, as Motown figured out a long time ago,  there really is “nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide…”

If my last post regarding Android devices being marshaled into zombie armies sounded a little over the top maybe this one will resonate a little better.

According to forensic blog, which focuses on mobile phone forensics and malware, as of December 26, 2012, there are 115 unique Android malware families known to exist. That number would be significantly higher if you counted all the variations on these that might be circulating.

115 doesn’t sound like a lot compared to the tens of thousands of Windows viruses in existence but its a far cry from zero and should serve as a wake up call regarding the need for malware protection on mobile devices. If that still doesn’t convince you then maybe the analysis regarding the threat that these present might:

Families that steal personal information 51,3 %
Families that send premium rated SMS messages 30,1 %
Families with characteristics of a Botnet 23,5 %
Families that contain Root-Exploits 18,3 %
Families downloaded from the Google-Play Market 11,3 %
Families that install additional applications 10,4 %
Families that steal location related data 8,7 %
Potentially unwanted applications 7,8 %
Online-Banking Trojans 3,5 %

Source: forensic blog,

And don’t get too smug because your phone or tablet runs iOS. We had this debate years ago when people claimed that Mac OS was immune and then again with UNIX/Linux. Granted, the relative risk might be lower over the entire population of these install bases but the fact remains that any functional OS can be exploited because none are perfect.

Put more succinctly, all software (of any significant complexity) has bugs and some percentage of those bugs will be security-related, therefore, all software carries with it a set of security risks.