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Linux isn’t invulnerable. In fact, that’s one of the most common cybersecurity myths that gets Linux users into trouble. This belief makes it easy to put your guard down, and when your guard is down, that’s when you’re most likely to get sucker punched.
But just because Linux has security holes doesn’t mean you need antivirus or firewall software. While you may decide to install one anyway — and there’s nothing wrong with that — here are a few reasons why it may not be as helpful as you think.
Why Linux Doesn’t Need an Antivirus
Malware for Linux desktops is rare
Since Linux is the least popular desktop operating system, and since Linux users tend to be a tech-savvy bunch, and other operating systems have easier security holes to exploit, it simply isn’t as profitable to attack Linux.
Of course, Linux malware does exist. To say otherwise would just be naive and untruthful. However, it just isn’t as big an issue as it is on other operating systems, and there’s almost no chance you’ll run into one (unless you’re viewing inappropriate content or torrenting from disreputable sites).
Software installations are safer on Linux
Think about how software gets installed. On Windows and Mac, users often download EXE, MSI, and DMG installer files that request system-level access in order to make the necessary installation changes. That’s a prime avenue for malware attacks. One mistake, one trick, and you’re toast.
But Linux is different. Installer files exist but are unconventional — most users rely solely on package managers like APT and YUM. As long as you keep to trusted repositories, the risk of catching malware this way is virtually zero. That risk increases when you start playing around with obscure PPAs and the like.
Linux protects itself against malware
The fundamental structure of Linux makes it difficult for malware to take root, and even if you do end up contracting a virus or Trojan, it will have a tough time doing any real damage to the system. This is due to how permissions work in Linux.
Every file in Linux has three permission settings:
- What can the file’s owner do with this file?
- What can the file’s owner group do with this file?
- And what can everyone else do with this file?
If a virus hypothetically infected your system, it would likely be executed under your local account, and so would be limited to your user actions. Local user accounts can’t do anything to system-level “root” files, so the malware would be trapped and restrained (assuming you don’t accidentally execute the malware with “sudo”).
Antivirus effectiveness is questionable
Suppose one day there’s a new malware that targets Linux desktops. It makes use of a never-before-seen security exploit and it makes its way onto your system. Before you can even realize it, the malware wreaks havoc on your data and leaves you wondering what you could’ve done to prevent it.
Would antivirus have helped you here? Probably not.
Generally speaking, antivirus software is always one step behind viruses. It can’t protect you against threats it doesn’t realize are out there, which means antivirus developers are by definition reactive. Chances are, you’ll be hit by the malware before the antivirus understands how to deal with it.
And did you know that Linux antivirus clients primarily scan for Windows malware? Some do find Linux infections, but they mainly cleanse files of Windows infections so that you don’t pass that malware to your other computers or to your friends and family through file transfers.
Smart security habits are often enough on Linux
Two of the most well-known attack vectors on Linux desktops are Flash and Java. These two cross-platform platforms are known for their security vulnerabilities, which is why we recommend getting rid of Flash and stop using Java.
But those aren’t the only ones. Other potential vectors for malware include Silverlight, PDF files, outdated extensions and plugins, infrequently-updated cross-platform apps like OpenOffice, and more. USB drives can also carry latent malware.
All this to say: if you eliminate potential attack vectors, avoid shady parts of the web, steer clear of stray USB drives, drop bad security habits and develop good security habits, then there isn’t much to gain from antivirus software.
Why Linux Doesn’t Need a Firewall
Don’t worry, this answer is much shorter.
A firewall is simply a filter that determines which network packets (i.e. data) can come in to your computer from the internet and which can leave your computer to the internet. It’s mainly used to allow and/or disallow incoming connections. Outgoing connections are rarely filtered.
For most Linux desktop users, firewalls are unnecessary.
The only time you’d need a firewall is if you’re running some kind of server application on your system. This could be a web server, email server, game server, etc. In this case, a firewall will restrict incoming connections to certain ports, making sure that they can only interact with the proper server application.
If you aren’t running any server applications, then a firewall serves no purpose. If no servers are running, then your system isn’t listening for incoming connections, and if it isn’t listening for incoming connections, then nobody can connect.
Most Linux desktops run zero server applications out of the box.
Tips for Maximizing Linux Security
Despite all of these reasons to not install antivirus software, you may want to do it anyway — and that’s fine. Even if you never catch a single malware infection, it’s not like you’ve lost anything by having antivirus available. Better to be safe than sorry, right? After all, Linux isn’t as secure as many think.
For options, here are some good free Linux antivirus apps.
We also have recommendations for security-focused Linux operating systems, which ramp up security measures by several notches. Of them, you may like Qubes OS the best: it isolates apps through virtualization, essentially running them in a sandbox and minimizing risk of malware infections.
And for maximum privacy, be sure to use a VPN on Linux.
Do you run antivirus or firewall software in Linux? Why or why not? Got any other points to add? Let us know in the comments!
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