How can anyone feel comfortable using Linux? Windows and macOS have giant corporations behind them. They have a financial incentive to deliver the best product. They employs thousands of people to work on the bugs. They have laws to follow, and millions of eyes are watching them, waiting to attack with lawsuits and bad press if anything too murky is going on.
Linux? Well, doesn’t that just come from a few guys hacking away in their free time? Why should you trust them? And since no one organization controls it all, who do you hold accountable? It all sounds like a giant mess.
Yet despite all of this, I feel much safer using a Linux computer than I do running Windows or Mac. So if you are interested in Linux but can’t get beyond this particular anxiety, I hope what follows will ease your mind.
1. Linux Has Ethics
You’re right. Windows and macOS have giant companies behind them. Profit motives drive much of their design. Yes, this means trying to give consumers what they want, but it also means coming up with ways to make money. Sometimes those two don’t quite mix well.
Microsoft isn’t trying to grab as much information about users as it can because that’s what people want. Sure, gathering those metrics can help them fix bugs and build a better system, but in today’s tech industry, there’s billions of dollars to be made from collecting data. There’s a reason Google and Facebook have loads of cash despite giving away their core services for free.
On Linux, most developers aren’t in it to make money. They’re not trying to sell you over, which is part of the reason the operating system has such a small marketshare. They make free and open source software because, for one reason or another, they believe it’s the right thing to do.
Some, like Richard Stallman, explicitly view providing free software as an ethical issue. They view proprietary closed source programs as affronts to users that limit what we can do and blind us to what a program is really doing. Whether or not you agree, this provides some comfort that the people behind the GNU Project are making software that isn’t doing something shady in the background.
Most free and open source software comes with a license that ensures the code remains free for anyone to use as the wish. The creators believe in this enough to give up their ability to hide their “trade secrets” or “competitive advantage,” as well as their ability to sneak in ads, toolbars, and other unfriendly ways of making money from their programs.
2. Open Source Code = Transparency
I rarely glance at an app’s source code. I know it’s written in some computer language that I haven’t yet taken the time to learn. That’s okay. I don’t have to be the one to read the code. What matters is that other people can.
Sure, proprietary software companies occasionally let others audit their code. It provides them with some legitimacy. But in such a situation, we’re still left having to trust the people or software that were permitted to do the check. And even if we do trust them, they’re often only checking for specific things. There can be plenty of stuff in the code that you or I would object to that has nothing to do with what the auditors are seeking.
When the code is open, anyone can check things out. Sometimes no one does. Reading source code isn’t always the most interesting way to spend an afternoon. But just the fact that someone can is often enough to keep developers honest.
3. Most Linux OSes Aren’t Tracking You
Windows 10 picked up a lot of bad press for the extent to which it encroaches on people’s privacy. That can be reason enough to want to switch to Linux. But why should you trust all those free software people anymore than you trust Microsoft?
For starters, most Linux projects aren’t in it for the money, nor is government pressure much of an issue. Most Linux projects aren’t connected to a company. Those that are have only a limited impact on what software goes into each release due to the decentralized nature of open source software. Governments wouldn’t know who to ask or how to get tracking implemented in a way that could get by users.
Developers themselves aren’t after your data, because without the need to turn a profit, there’s little reason to incur the cost of gathering and monetizing all that information. It simply isn’t worth the effort.
“So if privacy really matters to you, you need an operating system that doesn’t broadcast your moves to the World Wide Web. For all practical purposes, that means desktop Linux.”
— Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, Computer World
The Linux community is also one to baulk at anything that remotely resembles tracking. Canonical caught tremendous flack for implementing Amazon search results into the Ubuntu app launcher several years ago. The company claimed the data was anonymous, and to it, the feature probably seemed convenient and harmless. That did little to diminish the initial firestorm.
4. Corporations Are Invested in Linux Too
What if all of that doesn’t matter — you would still feel better if a company were behind Linux? Well, some are. Many of them. Take a look at the hundreds of companies on the list of corporate members of the Linux Foundation, the non-profit that promotes the Linux kernel. Names include such giants as AT&T, Dell, Google, Intel, Samsung, and even Microsoft. Sites such as eBay, Facebook, Netflix, and Twitter are all willing to show some financial support for Linux in this way.
That’s because many organizations depend on Linux. Linux powers much of the web. Some sites use it for simple hosting, while others use Linux to manage sensitive financial or health information. Various parts of the U.S. government use Linux, including the Department of Defense. Linux is even in use in the International Space Station. The Large Hadron Collider? Yup, that uses Linux too.
No single company may be responsible for Linux, but a lot of them would be adversely affected if Linux were unreliable or untrustworthy.
5. You Already Do Trust Linux
That’s right. Whether you have concerns or not about Linux being safe, you’re already trusting that it is. There’s a good chance that your car manufacturer uses Linux inside its vehicles. Can you trust that Linux is safe enough for online banking? I hope so, because your bank is probably using Linux to handle the site you’re signing into. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration uses Linux to help it safely keep track of all of the planes in the air. Your life is in their hands whenever you’re in the air.
That’s not to say that Linux is a fortress. People discover vulnerabilities. They compromise sites. Even cars can be exploited and controlled remotely.
But for the most part, Linux is keeping much of the software in your life running without a hitch, even if it isn’t the OS on your laptop.
Is Linux Inherently Safer?
I can’t tell you if Linux is, by design, a more secure system than Windows or macOS. Much of its safety comes from having a relatively small and technical set of desktop users. Nefarious people would rather target an operating system with more users, and where fewer people practice safe computing habits. An informed and responsible user can get by just fine using Windows or macOS, assuming they’re comfortable (as most people seem to be) not knowing what’s going on in the background.
But I’m not arguing here that Linux is the safest desktop to use. As far as I know, that answer could be one of the BSDs. I just want to alleviate concerns about Linux being less safe. If you’re hankering to switch to Linux, don’t let concerns over security and privacy be what hold you back. You’ll likely be just fine.
Do you have concerns about Linux’s security? Is security one of the reasons you use Linux over other desktops? What advice would you give to others? By all means, share your thoughts and concerns in the comments below!