Unix, Windows and security

A guy called Thom Holwerda, who posts many of the entries at the tech blog OSNews, today posted a piece about the security merits of Unix-type operating systems (like Mac OS X and Linux) over Windows, and how it’s not necessarily best for the ordinary desktop user. The thinking behind it is that Unix’s restricted-user model, in which people only have access to their own files unless they are using an administrative account, lulls people into a false sense of security: their system files can be re-installed, but the personal data which could be deleted if a virus, which like the user could only access the user’s own files, probably means a lot more to them, and is unlikely to be backed-up. (Tags: , , .)

Perhaps I’m not the average desktop user, because my main hobby other than blogging is developing blogging software (right now, at least). I use two machines to program Qt applications: a Mac, and a laptop, which runs both Windows 2000 and Linux. And the most irritating of the three is Windows, because of the additional security software you need if you are going to connect a Windows machine to the internet. Which costs money, and for quite some time I didn’t have the money, or at least, felt that I couldn’t justify spending any because I had my Mac, which does everything I want. But then Qt 4 was released which is available free on Windows now, and I thought “right, I’ve got to start making Windows versions of my program available”, which meant connecting the laptop to the internet while running Windows, which meant buying anti-virus software.

The trouble is, anti-virus software is itself annoying. For one thing, it is one more thing to load whenever you start the machine, which then prompts you to download updates, and sometimes wants to restart the machine when you’ve only just started it up. I have used public computers which have seriously mangled security software which slows down the system’s performance. Admittedly Windows is a quicker starter than Linux (particularly the version I use, namely SUSE 10), but the time lag between everything appearing and being able to use the system is an annoyance.

Why would anyone prefer, given the choice between annoying and performance-reducing anti-virus software and an operating system which is structurally unfriendly to viruses, choose the former? I suspect that, if Unix-type operating systems were to be found on more PCs and this resulted in a greater number of viruses which attack personal files, software would become available to tackle them and the operating systems themselves would be adapted for this purpose as well (which might well make AV software redundant). Besides which, the culture of computing would most likely change, and people would become aware that they had to secure their personal data, much as they know today that they have to secure their systems with AV software.

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