Three companies control the operating system market: Microsoft, Apple, and Google. These companies have a combined market share of 97%, and about 60% of all personal computing devices run on a mobile operating system. The desktop market is dominated by Windows – with a 75% market share – Apple (20%) and Chrome OS (Google’s desktop operating system) with 1 percent. Linux-based operating systems make up roughly 1.5 percent, but it is safe to assume that most ‘unknown’ operating systems are running some form of Linux.
With smartphones becoming increasingly popular for day-to-day activities – such as browsing the web and buying goods online – most of our more complex tasks are still done on the desktop. That is especially true when working with sensitive documents, or when privacy and information security is of greater concern.
While productivity is certainly higher on the desktop, information security and privacy are not necessarily guaranteed. In this article, we briefly discuss significant flaws of desktop operating systems, as well as ways to avoid them.
Microsoft is known for discontinuing the development of older operating systems. Eventually, all users will have to adopt Windows 10 or face serious software limitations and security flaws. However, Microsoft has implemented many new user tracking features and backdoors in Windows 10. Furthermore, their business model changed from one-time software purchase to a free and live service model. It is safe to assume intelligence gathering, the installation of apps, and features based on this information, are an integral part of Microsoft’s future business model.
The backdoors that have been present in previous versions of Windows grant Microsoft access to your computer at any time to ‘update.’ That starts to live a life of its own, such as downloading and implementing updates without the consent of the user. Such features could be used and abused by law enforcement and hacking groups. Moreover, Microsoft could use it to implement spying tools.
Spying tools are more prevalent than ever before. Most privacy settings enable Windows to send sensitive information to Microsoft. Examples are the time you spend in certain apps, whether they crash, and if you are browsing an online store.
Information concerning hardware configuration is always shared with Microsoft. It provides them and possible attackers with potential hardware abuses. The recent Meltdown and Spectre exploits show the potential risks, demonstrating how a flaw in modern Intel CPU’s could leave your decryption keys vulnerable.
Also, Windows uploads a recovery key of its disc encryption key, essentially giving Microsoft the keys to the castle. The premium service BitLocker provides more security, as it allows to store recovery keys locally. Through CPU security flaws and a surplus of backdoors, Microsoft and attackers could access your data. Even if you would use an alternative encryption solution such as VeraCrypt, there is no guarantee your data is safe.
With Windows being the most popular operating system by far, the majority of malicious software is designed to target that system. Without top-of-the-line security, the poor architecture of Windows leaves you vulnerable to all sorts of attacks.
Historically, macOS has been a more popular operating system with professionals. OS is generally associated with higher security and better privacy. However, with the increase of casual users and overall growth in market share, malicious parties now focus on Apple’s operating system. Despite improved privacy and advanced security architecture, Apple was not able to stop the tide of new attackers.
A recent report shows that macOS has seen a sharp increase in malicious code. It is estimated that new attacks on Macs outpace those on Windows computers by as much as 400 percent. Particularly ransomware attacks are increasing and have disastrous consequences for both the private and governmental sectors. In terms of numbers, adware and Potentially Unwanted Programs (PUPs) have seen the largest increase.
Mac devices are just as vulnerable – if not more – than Windows computers, as their components are not nearly as diverse. That allows manufacturers to concentrate their efforts on patching these vulnerabilities. macOS has a baked-in encryption feature just like Windows, but unlike Windows, it requires no payment to manage your encryption keys. You have the option to store your recovery key online, but you do not have the same possibilities as a premium service, such as BitLocker.
Many reports exist about private information ending up on the cloud. Besides, crash reports of Apple’s software get automatically uploaded to their servers, which often contain logs with user data.
Overall, Apple appears to be a better choice than Microsoft regarding privacy. However, in terms of information security, you are just as vulnerable. Unfortunately, many Mac users still believe they have nothing to worry about when it comes to malicious software, and do not take the necessary precautions.
Windows vs. macOS: similar fundamental problems
In case of negative publicity or judicial issues, the reputation of Apple and Microsoft is on the line, which is a price both are not willing to pay. That happened during the FBI vs. Apple dispute over an encrypted iPhone. In the end, the iPhone was cracked by the FBI with help from a third party. Whether or not this party was connected to Apple – to make the court case go away – one can only speculate. Nevertheless, it was in the interest of both parties to make this case go away.
One should also take into consideration that both systems are designed for user-friendliness. Even when you use encrypted files and disks, a lot of sensitive data is stored outside of your encryption in non-volatile memory. That means file logs and other potentially sensitive data could be reconstructed because the information is never actually deleted. Unless you use a tool such as Eraser to scrub data from your hard drive manually, traces of data will remain on your device.
Also, both systems have major boot sequence vulnerabilities. Programs such as Kon-Boot allow you to bypass the password of the computer easily if you get physical access. Using encrypted drives could still secure your data, but the vulnerabilities mentioned above can undo them.
The Linux solution
As mentioned earlier, Linux represents only a small share of the market. Many universal security problems also apply to Linux systems. Yet, it has one major advantage: Linux’s system architecture has security in mind, instead of security being an addition to the system.
Linux has a far more robust permissions system preventing unauthorized access to files. Furthermore, rule-based security features – such as SELinux – prevent potentially malicious programs from reading, writing, and executing files. Though spying features in Windows can only be disabled, Linux products allow the removal of intrusive elements altogether.
Still, data does not magically disappear from your hard drive, and communication can be intercepted and read. However, some excellent security-oriented products – such as Tails OS – can solve these issues and do so with incredible success.
Although not all Linux distributions are focused on security, they are not targeted nearly as often by hackers. Plenty of vulnerabilities are caught and patched faster because of its more open nature. Linux users are also more tech-savvy, making them more challenging targets. Finally, some Linux products are dedicated entirely to security, making Linux the preferred option for real privacy and information security.