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inux is widely considered one of the most secure operating systems around. On a basic level, Linux is built from the ground up to be fundamentally sound, and it forces users to work with security in mind. For instance, it enforces the system of ordinary users who are limited in what they can do, thus making it harder for security breaches like virus infections to occur. In addition, Linux contains a firewall that is hardwired into the kernel. It s called iptables (www.netfilter.org) and is considered among the best solutions by practically all computer security experts. Not only that, but it can protect your home PC just as well as it can protect the most powerful supercomputer. But, as with many Linux kernel components, iptables is difficult to use. It requires indepth knowledge of how networks operate and an ability to hack configuration files, both of which are beyond the skills of many ordinary computer users. Fortunately, several programs act as interfaces to iptables and make it simple to operate (or at least as simple as any equivalent Windows-based software firewall, such as ZoneAlarm from Zone Labs). Ubuntu has a built-in firewall, but it is not configured by default. This is because the developers don t think that Ubuntu requires a firewall, and on a technical level, they re correct. Unlike with Windows, Ubuntu has no Internet-facing services (programs that wait for connections from the Internet or local area network). It was just such a service on Windows XP that allowed the Blaster worm to bring the Internet to its knees in 2003 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaster_worm). Expressed metaphorically, the theory is that without any windows or doors, Ubuntu will be difficult, if not impossible, for hackers to break into (or for viruses or worms to infect). However, configuring the firewall with a program like Firestarter, which we examine later in this chapter, can be done so quickly and with such little effort that, in our opinion, there s no reason not to make use of the Linux firewall. In addition, as with most versions of Linux, Ubuntu doesn t come with antivirus protection out of the box. This is because there are practically no viruses affecting Linux, and it is reasoned that there simply isn t a need for virus protection. However, as with a firewall configuration program, installing an antivirus program is easily done, and we explain how in this chapter. But first, you ll spend some time examining more basic security concepts. Following that, we ll look at how to encrypt files and e-mail so that they can be
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CHAPTER 9 HOW TO SEC URE Y OUR COMPUTE R
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opened only by the intended recipients. Then we ll cover some elementary steps that you can take to protect your system.
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Windows Security vs. Linux Security
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If you ve switched to Ubuntu from Windows, there s a very good chance that the security failings of Windows featured in your decision. Windows Vista contains many improvements, but Microsoft s record on security over the past few years has been appalling. New and serious security warnings appeared on an ongoing basis, and even now, new and devastating viruses make news headlines with worrying frequency (usually described as a PC virus rather than what it actually is a Windows virus). One argument is that Windows is the target of so many viruses merely because it s so popular. Although it s true that some of those who write viruses do so because they dislike Microsoft, there s also little doubt that Windows has more than its fair share of security issues. Many people are still critical of Microsoft s approach to security. For example, Microsoft s latest operating system, Windows Vista, features User Account Control (UAC) dialog boxes that appear whenever a system-affecting action is required. However, they are so common that many people stop reading what they warn about, and simply click OK by reflex. Compare this to Ubuntu. Similar dialog boxes appear whenever a system-affecting action is required, but here the user s password must be entered. This forces the user to stop and think, rather than simply clicking a mouse button. Also, the Ubuntu password dialog boxes have more of any impact because they appear far less frequently than UAC dialog boxes. While Vista offers reasonable security, Microsoft s previous operating system, Windows XP, is considered an easy target for hackers and virus writers. 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. While you would never intentionally damage your own system, computer attackers use various techniques to get you to run malicious software (by pretending it s a different file, for example) or simply infect 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 some years ago 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,
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