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CHAPTER 9 HOW TO SECURE YOUR COMPUTER
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The situation is certainly getting better but, even so, Microsoft s latest operating system, Windows XP, provides many good examples of why it s an easy target. Upon installation, the default user is given root powers. True, a handful of tasks can be performed only by the genuine administrator, but the default user can configure hardware, remove system software, and even wipe every file from the hard disk, if he pleases. Of course, you would never intentionally damage your own system, but computer attackers use various techniques to get you to run malicious software (by pretending it s a different file, for example) or by simply infecting your computer across the Internet without your knowledge, which is how most worms work. Viruses and worms also usually take advantage of security holes within Windows software. As just one example, a famous security hole within Outlook Express allowed a program attached to an e-mail message to run when the user simply clicked a particular message to view it. In other words, infecting a Windows machine was as easy as sending someone an e-mail message! It s a different story with Linux. Viruses and worms are far rarer than they are on Windows. In fact, the total number of viruses and worms that have been found in the wild infecting Linux systems number far less than 100 (one report published in 2003 put the number at 40, and the number is unlikely to have grown much since then). Compare that to Windows, where according to the Sophos antivirus labs (www.sophos.com), approximately 1,000 new viruses are discovered every month! The Sophos antivirus product now guards against just under 100,000 viruses.
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Note The high number of Windows viruses may be due to the quantity of Windows PCs out there. After all,
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for a virus to spread, it needs computers to infect, and it won t have trouble finding other Windows computers.
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But while I would love to say that security holes are not found on Linux, the sad truth is that they re a fact of life for users of every operating system. Many so-called rootkits are available, generated by members of underground cracking groups. These are specialized software toolkits that aim to exploit holes within the Linux operating system and its software. The bottom line is that while writing a virus or worm for Linux is much harder than doing the same thing on Windows, all Linux users should spend time defending their system and never assume that they re safe.
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As I ve mentioned in earlier chapters, Linux makes use of something called the root user account. This is sometimes referred to as the superuser account, and that gives you an idea of its purpose in life: the root user has unrestricted access to all aspects of the system. The root user can delete, modify, or view any file, as well as alter hardware settings.
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CHAPTER 9 HOW TO SECURE YOUR COMPUTER
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Linux systems also have ordinary user accounts, which are limited in what they can do. Such users are limited to saving files in their own directory within the /home directory (although the system is usually configured so that an ordinary user can read files outside the /home directory, too). But an ordinary Ubuntu user cannot delete or modify files other than those that he created or for which he has explicitly been given permission to modify by someone else. On most Linux systems, it s possible to type root at the login prompt and, after providing the correct password, actually log in as root and perform system maintenance tasks. Ubuntu is slightly different in that the root account is disabled by default, and users are instead able to borrow superuser powers whenever they re required. For this to happen, they need to provide their login password. With desktop programs, this is automatic, but at the command prompt, users need to preface commands with sudo. Although the root account is disabled, most key operating system files belong to root, which is to say that only someone with superuser powers can alter them. Ordinary users are simply unable to modify or delete these system files, as shown in Figure 9-1. This is a powerful method of protecting the operating system configuration from accidental or even deliberate damage.
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Note Along with the root and ordinary user accounts, there is a third type of Linux account, which is
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similar to a limited user account, except that it s used by the system for various tasks. These user accounts are usually invisible to ordinary users and work in the background. For example, the audio subsystem has its own user account that Ubuntu uses to access the audio hardware. The concepts of users and files are discussed in more depth in 14.
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