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.
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