3 Real Risks When Downloading Leaked Operating Systems
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Every once in a while, you may hear about a new version of an operating system being leaked and available to try now. We’ve even highlighted a few of those in the past ourselves. But is it safe to download, install, and run a leaked OS?

Maybe, but you’re taking a chance if you do.

There’s just too much uncertainty around leaked OSes: Will it work? Has it been tampered with? Why would someone leak this? There are a handful of ways it could go wrong and bite you in the end.

The next time you see news of a leaked OS — even if it’s a well-known one like Windows or Mac — keep the following risks in mind. It may not be worth it.

1. Compromised OS

When somebody leaks an OS, you have to ask yourself why they did it. We may never find out the exact reason, but it’s good to think about ulterior motives.

A public relations team leaked it. A surprising number of leaks are actually planned. Stories involving leaks are instantly more dramatic, which works to build buzz and attention around a release that would’ve otherwise gone unnoticed. These leaks are as safe as they get.

A rogue employee leaked it. Somebody who has access grabs the upcoming release and either gives it to someone else (e.g. a cutthroat manager who sells it to a competitor) or releases it on their own (e.g. a disgruntled developer who wants to harm the company before his exit). These leaks are usually safe.

A hacker leaked it. Some tech-savvy genius — maybe Chinese, maybe Russian, maybe American — manages to break through a company’s security, grab the OS’s source, modify it, then releases it into the wild.

This is the one you need to worry about.

3 Real Risks When Downloading Leaked Operating Systems laptop computer security

Could a hacker leak an OS with altruistic intentions, doing it simply to give people a chance to try it out? Sure. Is it likely? No. There’s a lot of risk involved for the hacker: if he gets caught, the penalties will be severe.

So if someone is going to break in and steal a corporation’s software — not to mention something as big and valuable as an entire OS — then you can bet he’s doing it for some gain. And what could he gain? Off the top of my head:

Are you rolling your eyes? Don’t! These things do happen — such as in 2016 when hackers tricked users into installing a compromised version of Linux Mint, which gave full computer access to IP addresses in Bulgaria. If Windows or Mac ever leaked, a similar threat could be entirely possible.

2. Malware Infections

There is always a risk when downloading any software from a site you don’t recognize, and when an operating system is leaked, you can be sure that 99 percent of the time, it will be hosted on a site you’ve never heard of — and download sites can be home to malware.

To be clear, the download itself might be legitimate but the site so packed with malware-laden ads How to Spot and Avoid Fake Virus & Malware Warnings How to Spot and Avoid Fake Virus & Malware Warnings How can you tell between genuine and fake virus or malware warning messages? It can be tough, but if you stay calm there are a few signs that will help you distinguish between the two. Read More and fake download buttons How To Spot, And Avoid, Ads Disguised As Download Buttons How To Spot, And Avoid, Ads Disguised As Download Buttons Read More that you end up catching a virus simply in your attempt to grab the leaked OS.

Imposter downloads are a risk too. Say there’s a leak of a brand new, unreleased version of macOS. It wouldn’t be too difficult for a clever swindler to put up an alternate download site (“mirror”) that looks legitimate but serves an alternated version of the ISO, EXE, DMG, or what have you.

As soon as you try installing the fake leaked OS — infected.

3 Real Risks When Downloading Leaked Operating Systems malware download email

Torrents are no less risky. In fact, if the original leak was uploaded as a torrent, then impersonation becomes even easier. Most casual users don’t know how to distinguish between real and fake torrents, and so succumb to trickery.

It happens all the time with movie files 4 Telltale Signs That You've Downloaded A Fake Movie File 4 Telltale Signs That You've Downloaded A Fake Movie File Read More . Why would an OS be any different?

Watch out for shady emails. Back in 2006, there was a worm called W32/Bagle.AT that masqueraded as all kinds of fake software (e.g. cracks, updates, leaks) and propagated across networks through email attachments. One of its fake names? “Windows Longhorn Beta Leak.exe”! Yikes.

You can mitigate this particular risk with a strong antivirus setup (see security suites for Windows 5 Best Free Internet Security Suites for Windows 5 Best Free Internet Security Suites for Windows Which security suite do you trust the most? We look at five of the best free security suites for Windows, all of which offer anti-virus, anti-malware, and real-time protection features. Read More , Mac 9 Apple Mac Antivirus Options You Should Consider Today 9 Apple Mac Antivirus Options You Should Consider Today By now, you should know that Macs need antivirus software, but which one should you choose? These nine security suites will help you stay free of viruses, trojans, and all other sorts of malware. Read More , and Linux The 7 Best Free Linux Anti-Virus Programs The 7 Best Free Linux Anti-Virus Programs Read More ), but even then, if your antivirus software isn’t up-to-date by the time you download, it may not catch all viruses.

3. Bricked Device

This last risk isn’t tied to any malicious intent, but can just as easily result in harm and frustration like the above two risks.

More likely than not, a leaked OS just isn’t ready to be used.

Think about it this way: even after months of testing and preparation, an OS that’s released according to schedule can come with catastrophic bugs and glitches 8 Annoying Windows 10 Issues & How to Fix Them 8 Annoying Windows 10 Issues & How to Fix Them The upgrade to Windows 10 has been smooth for most, but some users will always encounter issues. Whether it's a flashing screen, network connectivity issues, or battery drain, it's time to resolve these problems. Read More . Imagine how much worse it would be if the OS was released before it’s deemed ready for public use?

3 Real Risks When Downloading Leaked Operating Systems computer bricked destroyed shattered

And “catastrophic” isn’t an understatement.

Worst case scenario, you might encounter a rare issue that ruins your system and renders it inoperable. A tiny glitch that affects the bootloader may result in a machine that doesn’t even launch. In the case of a phone, you may not even be able to reformat and start over (the phone is now a “brick” Are You Sure It's Bricked? How You Can Fix Your Broken Smartphone Are You Sure It's Bricked? How You Can Fix Your Broken Smartphone Back in the day, a bricked device would be very tough to recover, but over the years some resilience has been built into smartphones and tablets. These days a few clever button presses, useful additional... Read More ).

These were real risks for anyone who saw the Windows 10 Cloud ISO leak in early 2017 and decided to give it a try. That was an extremely early build, unready for the public, and full of bugs.

When installing a leaked OS, you’re essentially taking on the role of an early adopter 5 Reasons Why Being An Early Adopter Is A Bad Idea 5 Reasons Why Being An Early Adopter Is A Bad Idea Are you the type of person who pre-orders the newest tech gadgets as soon as they’re available? Then you’re an early adopter. Is there a downside? Let's find out. Read More : in exchange for the privilege of trying out something brand new, you expose yourself to a number of uncertain risks.

How to Mitigate These Risks

To stay absolutely clear of these risks, the best thing you can do is avoid leaked OSes altogether. Don’t download them and don’t install them.

But if you really want to play around and try it out, use a virtual machine Testing A New Operating System? Stay Secure With A Virtual Machine Testing A New Operating System? Stay Secure With A Virtual Machine Read More .

By running the leaked OS in a VM without internet connectivity, you can isolate the chance of a bug turning your machine into a brick, and you can minimize the risk of a compromised core. But you’ll still need to be careful when downloading the OS, as you could still catch malware that way.

Have you ever tried running a leaked OS? How did it go? Got any other tips for reducing risks? Let us know in the comments below!

Image Credit: EugenP/Depositphotos

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  1. Georg
    October 2, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    This doesn't stop someone from stealing your computer as most thieves know to connect an external DVD with a copy of WIN 10 then they wipe out whatever is on the computer's HDD and after the clean install the computer is theirs.

  2. dragonmouth
    September 25, 2017 at 9:43 pm

    I don't run proprietary O/Ss and there is no point or profit in 'leaking' an open source O/S. So, no, I never ran a 'leaked' O/S.

  3. rusty
    September 25, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    basically ran every flavor of microsoft free since before xp, sure it could be risky.
    I always run it first on an old PC and test that for weeks seeing how it runs and using many tools to monitor what the OS is doing. sounds like a good idea using a virtual machine for testing.
    however I don't think the future really needs this, as OS's are basically becoming free.
    There is the toolkit for microsoft 10 to activate, so you just use a "real" installer, then run the EZ activate kit.