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HTG Explains: Why You Don’t Need an Antivirus On Linux (and When You Do)

no-linux-antivirus

Believe it or not, there are antivirus programs targeted at desktop Linux users. If you have just switched to Linux and started looking for an antivirus solution, don’t bother – you do not need an antivirus program on Linux.

There are some situations when running an antivirus on Linux makes sense, but the average Linux desktop isn’t one of them. You would only want an antivirus program to scan for Windows malware.

Few Linux Viruses Exist in the Wild

The core reason you don’t need an antivirus on Linux is that very little Linux malware exists in the wild. Malware for Windows is extremely common. Shady advertisements push nasty software that is practically malware, file-sharing sites are full of infected programs, and malicious individuals target security vulnerabilities to install Windows malware without your permission. With this in mind, using an antivirus program on Windows is an important layer of protection.

However, you are very unlikely to stumble on – and be infected by – a Linux virus in the same way you would be infected by a piece of malware on Windows.

Whatever the reason, Linux malware isn’t all over the Internet like Windows malware is. Using an antivirus is completely unnecessary for desktop Linux users.

avast-antivirus-scanning-on-linux

Why Linux is Safer Than Windows

Here are a few reasons why Windows struggles with a malware problem, while few pieces of malware target Linux:

  • Package Managers and Software Repositories: When you want to install a new program on your Windows desktop, you head to Google and search for the program. When you want to install most programs on Linux, you open your package manager and download it from your Linux distribution’s software repositories. These repositories contain trusted software that has been vetted by your Linux distribution – users aren’t in the habit of downloading and running arbitrary software.
  • Other Security Features: Microsoft has been doing a lot of work to fix serious security problems with Windows. Until UAC was introduced with Windows Vista, Windows users almost always used the Administrator account all the time. Linux users normally used limited user accounts and became the root user only when necessary. Linux also has other security features, like AppArmor and SELinux.
  • Market Share and Demographics: Linux has historically had low market share. It has also been the domain of geeks that tend to be more computer-literate. Compared to Windows, it’s not nearly as big or easy a target.

Staying Secure on Linux

While you don’t need an antivirus, you do need to follow some basic security practices, no matter which operating system you use:

  • Keep Your Software Updated: In an age when browsers and their plug-ins – particularly Java and Flash – are the top targets, staying up-to-date with the latest security patches is important. The biggest malware problem on Mac OS X was caused by the Java plug-in. With a cross-platform piece of software like Java, the same vulnerability can work on Windows, Mac, and Linux. On Linux, you can update all your software with a single, integrated updater.
  • Beware Phishing: Phishing – the practice of creating websites that pretend to be other websites – is just as dangerous on Linux or Chrome OS as it is on Windows. If you visit a website that pretends to be your bank’s website and enter your banking information, you are in trouble. Luckily, browsers like Firefox and Chrome on Linux have the same anti-phishing filter they do on Windows. You don’t need an Internet security suite to protect against phishing. (However, bear in mind that the phishing filter doesn’t catch everything.)
  • Don’t Run Commands You Don’t Trust: The Linux command prompt is powerful. Before you copy-paste a command you read somewhere into the terminal, ask yourself whether you trust the source. It could be one of the 8 Deadly Commands You Should Never Run on Linux.

When You Need an Antivirus on Linux

Antivirus software isn’t entirely useless on Linux. If you are running a Linux-based file server or mail server, you will probably want to use antivirus software. If you don’t, infected Windows computers may upload infected files to your Linux machine, allowing it to infect other Windows systems.

The antivirus software will scan for Windows malware and delete it. It isn’t protecting your Linux system – it’s protecting the Windows computers from themselves.

You can also use a Linux live CD to scan a Windows system for malware.


Linux isn’t perfect and all platforms are potentially vulnerable. However, as a practical matter, Linux desktops don’t need antivirus software.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 01/29/13

Comments (59)

  1. Be3

    I am a troll.

  2. Murphy

    @Be3: You do not know what are you talking about, so better don’t comment at all.

  3. thesilentman

    @Be3,

    Such a good troll we got here…[/sarcasm]

    Personally, the only issue that I see in the article is the amount of Linux usage. It can be quite hard to tell how many Linux users there are as we can download one distro image and use that as many times as we want, whereas Windows has product keys and internet activation, and Macs can be figured out due to sales. For instance (please correct me if I’m wrong, I’m okay with that), Ubuntu 12.04 was downloaded 12 million times. I’m pretty sure that the iso isn’t there to take up space. Also known as why you don’t listen to FUD. :-)

  4. Be3

    @Murphy Positive I know more about operating systems and exploiting security, obviously a lot more than this author and claiming you need no security on a desktop because its linux is down right foolish. What do you know?

    @thesilentman Who’s trolling? Truth isn’t trolling linux sucks and the author is retarded.

  5. gerrit

    I love Linux Mint it is superrrrrr

  6. Jim

    @Be3 Please explain how you would exploit a linux based OS and infect it with a virus? Thanks.

  7. techyless

    It’s funny how my site did a very small article about linux viruses and stuff just a few days ago..

  8. TheFu

    If you run Linux interact with virus-prone files and Windows users, then it would be very nice if you ran an AV to slightly limit the likelihood of passing on a virus to those nice folks. PDF, MS-Office, Flash, these are the main files used for attacks.

    Being a good neighbor is a nice thing to do.

    Linux can definitely be hacked, but running an AV is not likely to provide much protection. That is not the normal attack vector for Linux. A huge article can be written on how to secure Linux systems, including Linux desktops, but running AV that searches for MS-Windows viruses simply will not help.

  9. flavionyc

    linux people are intense

  10. fallout330

    Very good info, thank!

  11. spike

    @Be3: It’s easy for anyone to say on a public blog that they know what they’re talking about. However, I don’t believe you for a second, and yes, personally attacking the author is considered trolling. If you at least tried to punctuate your sentences, you might lend yourself a little bit of credibility.

  12. fallout330

    btw Bodhi Linux is not bad for older hardware, as well as DSL and Puppy for even much older hardware.

  13. LinuxRules

    Well Jim, it looks like you shut Be3 up. Its easy to say I can infect Linux 12 ways from Sunday. Its quite another when someone calls you out on it!

  14. Xana452

    I’ve always loved Ubuntu. Never had a problem with malware on it.

  15. Israel

    I’m not a security professional, but I think that what this @Be3 needs to know is that every system can be hacked. The difference between Linux and Windows is that the latter is way too vulnerable because of its privacy locks. Everyone wants to unlock Windows, everyone wants it to be free.

  16. tecn0tarded

    i have a 32gb ssd i boot into Lubuntu with to do all my online banking and purchases. I verify that the site is good then save it to a truecrypt volume along with the password. With a few firefox security add-ons, I’m pretty safe and never worry about windows malware.
    one thing i found with lunux using wine, you can encrypt a flashdrive with truecrypt, and install portable aps. Decrypt it and wine will open portableaps in a secure environment. this way you can leave the linux install empty (no personal data) and if the flashdrive is stolen, its completely useless unless they know your password. other wise the flash drive only shows up as a screen prompt asking you to format it.

  17. mhenriday

    Be3, statements to the effect that «Linux sucks and this guy is obviously retarded» are hardly likely to imporve one’s credibility on forums like the present one. You nowhere present any evidence for the absurdly general propostion that «Linux sucks», nor any for the more specific one that Chris Hoffman «is obviously retarded» – neither of which are really germane to the subject here, which is whether and to what degree GNU/Linux OSs require antivirus packages. If, despite your claim above to be well informed, you have nothing to contribute on the subject, perhaps you should refrain from posting to this particular thread. And in the event you are considering posting to other threads, perhaps you should attempt to contribute more to the discussion than name-calling and vituperation….

    Henri

  18. J.R. Freeman Jr.

    It was Steve Ballmer spreading propaganda between chasing cake!

    But seriously… Good article.

    I’ve had non-Linux users try to marginalize the security benefits, but anyone who had an appreciation for statistics wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the point.

  19. I.C. StupidPeople

    Bodhi linux brought my Dell Atom 10 netbook back to life after being a paperweight for about a year. Linux makes you use your brain and have to think, understand what you are doing & interact. Sheeple need not apply. The fact that anyone even engages with someone (such as be3) who makes such idiotic statements is WHY they make those idiotic statements. Trolls are attention seeking losers. Ignore them and they go away.

  20. Paul

    Go easy on Be3 — S/he obviously needs to adjust her/his meds.
    ;-)

    Life isn’t easy for trolls.

  21. tfm

    I have worked in and around windows since the earliest versions even as an admin working with security professionals who built software to help their clients find vulnerabilities on their systems so I know quite well how miserable windows can be. I finally got fed up with windows malware and other o/s nightmares that I switched to Linux 5 years ago full time and have never been happier (even using bedding edge fedora). I especially appreciate SElinux and malware is a thing of the past. I do enjoy the freedom. :-)

  22. thegeekkid

    Not to be trolling here (that’s already been done and gotten way out of hand), but I would like to respectfully disagree with the author on this one. Although Linux is great for many things, and there are very few viruses out there; I’m pretty sure that it is safe to assume there are probably a few out there… even if they are not heavily deployed. If you had to pay for an anti-virus on Linux, then I would probably agree with the author; but since Linux is open source and it doesn’t cost you anything to have it on there (other than a little less processing power at times), it is not a bad idea to have an antivirus to help you identify 0-day threats. Part of my job is keeping large networks secure, and I am a strong believer that the user’s computing habits are the #1 part of keeping a system/network secure. I have monthly training with my employees (the payroll costs less than the damage a well written virus can do… and my rates for disaster recovery are not cheap), so that they can learn what they can click on (very few things in the office, but I train them for at home as well… especially with BYOD), and what they shouldn’t.

    All I have to say is that Linux and Mac are very similar, and we are starting to see viruses emerging for Mac recently (especially with Java). The reason Linux doesn’t have as much problems with viruses as Mac does is that A. The same reason Mac was able to stay “virus free” for so long (not enough users), and B. Most users at this point in time using Linux at workstations (the most vulnerable part of the network IMO) are normally users who are smart enough not to click on the message that pops up as soon as you get to a page that says “You have a virus! Click here to fix it!!!” ;)

    Now… on a side note… what happened to the daily comics? That is the main reason I visit this site and I haven’t seen them for a few days… does anyone know if they have stopped putting them up for good, or is someone just on vacation?

  23. tfm

    Ha! Bedding edge = bleeding edge (dumb tablet) :-)

  24. cam2644

    Good article about a good Linux systems.
    B3# Naturally there are differences of opinion on some subjects but discussion on How to Geek has generally been very respectful.Let’s keep it that way.

  25. rKiller

    @BE3 A troll is among us!

  26. Patrik

    The author writes about three things that make Linux safer the Windows.

    Although they are true, they are NOT security features. They are “behavior” related feature.
    That means that if a user does;

    1. Download from other source
    2. Always “stays” as root user
    3. “Asume” that because Linux is smaller no virus/malware exist whatsoever

    is likely on almost same level as a Windows users as security goes.

    Just because users behave better, and virusmaker “ignores” smaller plattform doesnt make the OS more secure, there might be hundreds of way to hack that no one care to try…

    @Israel makes a very important point. People with windows often tries to “steal” it, and often “unlocks” security feature because they want to use something that is not allowed/recommended by the OS.

    Neither of this 3 arguments in the article means that Linux is safer than Windows (which I will say it is, but not because of these 3 arguments), but it means that the user actually is more cautious and aware of how to avoid exploits..

  27. edwin

    tnx!

  28. Chronno S. Trigger

    I have lost a lot of respect for How to Geek from just this one article. You advocate a security threw obscurity system (“Few Linux Viruses Exist in the Wild”) and a walled garden (“download it from your Linux distribution’s software repositories”). Then you go on to give advice that anyone should follow if they’re using Linux, Windows, Mac, or an internal combustion engine.

    This doesn’t explain why Linux is better, it explains why you shouldn’t tell people it is. If this is how Linux users deal with security, then you should make sure Linux doesn’t become the big target. Windows has so much malware pointed at it because it’s 90+% of the market. If you don’t want millions of hackers turning your way, you better not tell people how good Linux is.

    Look at Android. It’s Linux yet even with the Play Market, you still have to worry about malware. It became a target, Linux is not immune, and I will never run a system without anti-virus.

  29. pinky slim

    ps i love running without anti virus so i can capture and fwd them to people i dont like. Hahah linux is easier than windows to hack.

  30. tech255

    don’t feed the trolls.

  31. Rich

    I had windows “nightmare” for several years. Nothing but trouble. ( quite a bunch of virus’s, a lot of maintenance issues, freeze-ups, etc, etc). So, I switched to ubuntu about 7 years ago. Not one virus in those 7 years, and the OS has 98% fewer problems than windows. I give windows an “F”, & I give ubuntu a: “AAA”.

  32. Luigi

    If you use antivirus in linux at least you can scan any usb stick that comes into contact with your computer and save yourself from blame when someone gets a virus.

  33. Erwin

    I use several computers for years with Ubuntu/Lubuntu, never had any problems with malware, virusses, slowing down. On the other hand my win XP desktop and laptop were under fire/attack several times and I rescued them by using the live Linux CD. My Win 7 system started to slow down after a few months and I replaced Win 7 with Lubuntu and Linux Mint. What a difference in speed. An old laptop from around 1993 is still running on Ubuntu 10.10 (512 Mb RAM) at a reasonable speed after XP was replaced. Worldwide people are working together to improve a free OS and free software, Linux is an example of a great community. (I must admit that some Linux geeks are a bit arrogant towards newbies … )

  34. Wolf

    I have a Linux comp and several Windows comps, I keep Avast on them all and I keep them updated. surfing the net without an anti-virus is about as smart as playing Russian roulette, you may be lucky one or two times, but you will get shot.

  35. gyffes

    That wasn’t even a particularly interesting troll attempt.

    Hey, Silentman, Linus recently lamented, “I wrote Linux to be a desktop OS and it’s taken over everwhere except the desktop.”

    I’m pretty sure HE knows what he’s talking about, no?

  36. TFTCerveza

    You start running into virus issues when you interact with the windows users.
    You can have all sorts of infected user files on a Linux box.
    Will they cause many issues on your Linux machine, none that I have run into.

    Like was mentioned before, be a good neighbor and run something on your
    Linux box to clean up any issues with user files. That way its CYA for you so that
    you are not blamed for infecting or spreading infected files around.

  37. Be3

    You don’t need to interact with windows users/files to be infected on linux. The kernel itself has well over 100′s of vulnerabilities not to mention each piece of software you’re running on it, The repositories themselves can be hacked and used to deliver malware,viruses,keyloggers… in fact this has already happened in the past. Then there are web threats XSS being one of the biggest threats (look it up) it has been used several times to exploit linux users root & non root alike.

    My point was clear from the start linux sucks and the author of this article is retarded.
    Maybe if you guys actually read articles and papers written by the devs of your favorite distro’s you would understand why it sucks and will ALWAYS suck as a desktop environment . ultimately you idiots are guinea pigs for doomed projects that’ll never work and leave most of you dealing with major headaches securing/repairing a broken OS.

    @Everyone who believes SECURITY (not just av) is unnecessary because they’re using linux/mac is just down right retarded and it will only be a matter of time before you numbskulls are reading/writting how to prevent this or that.

    Truth is NO os is secure or more secure over another it boils down to common sense safer behavior online/offline and preventative measures and even then you’re not guaranteed safety.

    Enjoy being blind to the truth im done responding to you idiots do your homework before making claims.

  38. Erik

    This was said about the Mac before. It’s simply not true. Security through obscurity is NOT the answer. Linux CAN and WILL be targetted for increased virus attacks. You’ll see. So by all means, install an antivirus. However, I agree with the article in that Linux is more resilient against malware attacks by design. It’s not where it needs to be, yet… but it will get better.

  39. GrandpaLeaman

    Sorry Erik, but ‘security through obscurity’ doesn’t jib with the fact that over 50% of internet servers use Linux. I’m tired of hearing that one. And also tired of hearing about Linux security from folks that do not use Linux on a daily basis. I have used various Linux Distros over the past 5 years and have never gotten a virus. And the best thing is…it’s fun! If you want to continue to pay for, and use an OS that allows viruses on your computer with your important data, that’s your business. But don’t start repeating crap you read on the internet as truth. Ever since I started using Linux I have been hearing that, and I quote, ‘Linux CAN and WILL be targetted for increased virus attacks.’ I have yet to see this happen.

  40. Henry

    You don’t need AV on windows either; it’s called knowing WTF you’re doing

    really the issue, especially so with linux, is making sure it’s up to date because most exploits used get patched via updates

    I’ve never personally downloaded a virus excluding a *nix “virus” for rooting my phone

    trusted sources and ssl

  41. presence1960

    Have been using linux 6+ years (Ubuntu, Sabayon, Mint & Zorin). Have never had a broken system…that is weird because I know nowhere near as much as BE3. Maybe if BE3 would post in the spirit of being informative and helpful someone might just recognize his genius and listen to what he has to say.

  42. presence1960

    Linux is not better than windows or mac. I say this after 6+ years of linux as my main OS. Each has it’s strengths and weaknesses. It is up to each individual to use the OS that will best do what he/she wants to do with the machine. We each have a choice. Each does not want to hear their choice is “wrong” or “stupid”. Bottom line: Respect! Respect everyone’s choice for what it is, because your choice is exactly the same thing. No need to put someone else’s choice down to make you and/or your choice appear superior. If you like Windows and know so much join a windows forum and help people with your knowledge. The same goes for Linux and Mac. Join a forum and make yourself useful to others instead of trying to win useless arguments.

  43. thesilentman

    @gyffes,

    Yeah, I meant desktop Linux. Linux everywhere else is pretty much a given. I said that as I find it laughable that people theorize that Linux has a 1% market share on the desktops when it’s quite hard to find an estimate for desktop Linux installs.

  44. Riddle

    Yeah , If you have good leather boots that are water resistant ,then guess what ?I just found out that you can still wet them and I will sue every company that make them:
    1) take them off
    2) get a glass of water
    3) pour the water into the boots
    Saying that linux can *virtually* get viruses if you open a root shell and install them is exactly like the statement above ..
    look at this dangerous and evil virus , it totally deletes EVERYTHING on your Drives “rm -rf /”
    Unfortunately there is no antivirus (or a cure) for stupidity

  45. Legend Reborn

    Use Fedora it is most secure Linux distro till date.

  46. dominikjames

    Very good info, thank!

  47. Neo

    been using Linux exclusively since 2005 and have yet to even be close to an infection or adware/malware/crapware than was the bane of my windows XP experience.

    still waiting. Linux gives you your computer back.

    i recommend Linux Mint for newbies/desktop.

  48. ronator

    @Be3

    if you had any clue about computers and networks, then you should be able to differ between “having a antivirus-programm on linux desktop” or having “no security on a linux desktop”.

    Leave it be, you are just a stupid windows (8) troll who has no arguments

  49. Alain

    Suppose I want to use an AV on my Linux box. Where do I find one that DOES NOT include win32/54 signatures and only linux signatures.
    BTW, why should I be looking for Win32/64 stuff on my box? Win32/64 scanners do not look for Linux signatures do they?

  50. Stephen Hauskins

    I agree with Be3 except for the linux sucks part. I use linux servers all over the place and they are much easier to administer than Windows or Mac servers.

    As to security the author is talking about virus infection and not about hacking in a placing rootkits.

    Security on linux boils down to using the firewall (iptables), selinux, and making sure that unnecessary ports are not open. In addition, keeping the OS and base applications up-to-date is very important.

  51. marty331

    @thegeekkid,
    You bring some valid comments. Maybe having no anti-virus is not the way to go, but it is the way most of us role on Linux because we ‘know what we’re doing.’ That doesn’t mean that we can’t/won’t get infected.

    @be3,
    Id10t

  52. RonV

    Security though obscurity didn’t work for Apple and I would say the same for Linux. If you stay with the main distro’s and only the packages in the supported libraries you are pretty safe. If you compile and include packages alternative sources you increase your risk. And worse is a lot of attacks in Linux is rootkits. I do remember that there was updated package of a BitTorrent client that had a rootkit in and another in a email package. Not going to name names here since both owners of those projects cleaned it up really fast.

  53. Ray

    My oldest brother who is a computer engineer for a major airline tells me “LeeNukes” his pronunciation not mine says Linux is the best thing to happen to business and hobby computing since pre Windows.

  54. Be4

    I am a troll.

  55. Richard Steven Hack

    This article is completely correct. I don’t know what the current count is for Linux malware, but it’s probably still less than a hundred, most of which are “proof of concept” and not in the wild. Windows malware of course is counted in the MILLIONS.

    Where people get things wrong is proclaiming that Linux viruses are “impossible”. Of course they’re not impossible – just difficult and thus incredibly rare compared to Windows viruses.

    I run openSUSE Linux and the only security precautions I take are to make sure I run NoScript in Firefox and make sure the firewall blocks everything and disable SSH until I need to use it and disable all other unneeded services.

    With Windows you have to do all that AND run at least three different antimalware programs to be reasonably secure.

  56. Johnny Penn

    @be3
    In what wonderland do use know anything about pentesting. Linux backtrack has been the standard for students and professionals alike. I have worked in this feild for 4 years been to defcon and hackfest
    We use Linux 95% of the time. Windoze and Craple only for labs.

  57. Luc

    Trolling is fun. go ahead and try it. Make an outlandish statement you think might be true, and you will get a lot of feedback from a lot of different sources. You can always verify the statements, but some come from directions you may have never thought to go in before.

  58. j

    This is just horrible advice.
    you don’t need to worry about unwanted cpu cycles because virus/malware/et al don’t typically target your choice of OS?

    Unless your machine is not connected to those internet tubes, and no one besides yourself has physical access to the machine…you should absolutely run scans for malware/rootkits/viruses, etc.

    This article is just wholly irresponsible and a little insulting actually.
    Why bother using ssh, or ssl to encrypt your traffic too?
    The likelihood that someone will target you is extremely low (i’m no statistician, but it’s got to be in the range of your chances to win a lottery drawing for $100mln usd).

    Good security means you’re ready for an event, even when you have no reason to expect one.

    I can’t say with any certainty how effective the anti-virus applications tested in the article are, but personally I would recommend clamav ( http://www.clamav.net ), with an additional rootkit hunter like rkhunter ( http://rkhunter.sourceforge.net ).

    Many people got pulled in by this type of security advice for OSX…now people are seeing why I’ve been running an antivirus on my mac for years.

  59. NAISUMASH

    I have a problem on downloading the videos using UBUNTU. Am using UBUNTU 2.8. I need your help.

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