Privacy and Security Concerns Push Many to Switch to Linux
Originally published on https://wideangle.co/blog/privacy-security-linux-desktop
In the wake of privacy scandals like Cambridge Analytica. GDPR privacy legislation in Europe, and the chilling realization that our personal data is being collected and analyzed without our knowledge or consent, more people are worried about their online privacy than ever.
I have been using Windows 10 for a long time and it was my preferred OS. Enter Windows 11, the Windows 11 operating system is the latest release by Microsoft. I found that Windows 11 has some new features that I am not happy with. For example, it has forced ads and by default, it sends all your data to Microsoft servers. It also doesn't have an easy way to disable the webcam or microphone without installing third-party software. When it comes to viruses and malware in general Windows is the number one target simply due to its dominant position in the desktop OS market. Most alarming to me, was how the entire Windows ecosystem is being slowly pushed into an Apple style walled garden app store approach, where Microsoft solely decides what software I am able to run on my own machine.
Operating systems most affected by malware as of 1st quarter 2020
Once I saw that writing on the wall so to speak, I felt a tinge of panic as I started to wonder what choices we have left in terms of operating systems. It dawned on me that in the early 2000’s I dabbled a little in the Linux operating system, and I wondered what became of Linux and how much progress has been made on the OS since then.
Linux is a type of computer operating system (OS) that’s open-source, meaning it’s free to use, modify, and distribute. Unlike Windows and MacOS, which are produced by large corporations and have a high price tag, Linux is produced by a large community of independent developers and is completely free of charge. That is not to say that there are no commercial Linux distros. Redhat and SUSE are examples of commercially available and professionally supported distros aimed at enterprise customers.
With so many people from all over the world contributing to its source code, Linux offers a level of security and reliability that Windows simply can’t match. Linux doesn't have viruses, spyware, adware, malware, or any security issues. In fact, many people use Linux without even knowing it! 96.3% of the top one million web servers are running Linux.
Being an open-source platform means there are no restrictions on what you can do with your computer. As a bonus, it seems that Linux is also highly customizable in terms of interface to the point where some people are able to make it virtually indistinguishable from Windows.
That all sounded very promising, but I was still worried about software and hardware compatibility. Will I still be able to use all my favorite software? Will Linux recognize my graphics card? Will I be able to use Linux without delving into scripting and the dreaded terminal?
Those questions and more were swirling through my head as I began to research the hundreds of available Linux ``distros” or flavours. As I quickly discovered, Linux is not a monolithic operating system, but rather a family of operating systems that all began when Finnish software engineer Linus Torvalds created Linux in the early 1990s while still a student at the University of Helsinki. Torvalds started developing Linux to create a system similar to MINIX, a UNIX based operating system. After that, Linux quickly gained in popularity and new innovative versions of it started to appear. These versions are what ended up being called “distros” as of writing, there are at least 600 known Linux distros. That being said, the main desktop versions that I would recommend for Windows users boil down to a handful of choices. To arrive at that shortlist however, I spent a lot of time test driving various distros based on their popularity and descriptions I gleaned from www.distrowatch.com which is the number one portal for Linux distros, their stats and reviews.
How did I chose my distro
Since Linux allows you to test drive a certain distro by simply running it off a thumbdrive, I was able to indulge my curiosity by downloading whichever distro image I was intrigued by and then flashing it onto my USB thumb drive using Balena Etcher, and then booting my PC from that image, after adjusting my boot order in BIOS. Once Linux boots off the USB drive, it's almost fully functional, and allows me to play around and check out the various tools and applications it came with. I was really looking for something that closely resembled Windows in terms of look, feel, and function. I also wanted access to software that would allow me to continue using my computer almost the same way I currently do.
While test driving, I did quite a bit of research into how these different distros work, and the various reasons why people choose one over the other. I watched a lot of YouTube videos on the subject and really enjoyed the videos by https://www.youtube.com/c/LinusTechTips specifically this video.
I also asked some of my friends who use Linux what they like about it, and why they recommend it to others. Initially I was naturally attracted to the Arch Linux based family of distros, these include Manjaro, Garuda, Arco and others. The reason I was interested in the Arch branch was their rolling release model and their access to the AUR (Arch User Repository)
The first means that these distros are constantly receiving the latest updates, as opposed to the more standard, long term stable releases done by other major distros like Ubuntu or Fedora.
The AUR is a user maintained repository of software that contains thousands of free and open source applications for the user to download freely onto their system.
I chose Manjaro, downloaded the ISO and installed it on my PC.
I quickly discovered how amazingly configurable Linux is. Everything can be customized and configured, and I mean everything! Unlike Windows or MacOS, which come with one look and feel, Linux has many desktop environments to choose from, my favorite being KDE. The other thing that struck me was how much the operating system has matured since I dabbled with it over 20 years ago. Not only did it look gorgeous, but it was fast, smooth and things just worked! Most of the distros even allowed you to choose proprietary graphics and WiFi drivers to ensure that your system runs in an optimal state under Linux.
That being said, I figured the only surefire way to test the viability of long term use and a complete switch over to Linux, would be to actually use it as my daily driver for an extended period of time.
Daily Driving Manjaro
As I went throughout my day using my new Linux install, I started needing certain software, like for example I wanted to install an old version of MS Office, just so I can have access to the original MS Office file extensions. Yes I know there are office suites that are Linux native like Open Office, or LibreOffice, but in my experience I found that the formatting does not stay intact when opening an MS Office document with a different application and vice versa. I also knew from my research that some Windows programs can be installed on a Linux machine if you have the correct software, namely, the compatibility layer called Wine. The other thing I wanted to install was a specific web browser that I like called Waterfox. Waterfox is an open source fork of Firefox, that is more privacy and security focused while still being compatible with all Firefox extensions, including legacy ones.
A week into my Manajro daily, I started having trouble while installing software. The repositories sometimes would just return 404 errors and even after the software would complete downloading it would still fail to build/install for reasons unknown to me. I was not versed enough in the Linux Bash command line to be able to decipher let alone fix the errors I was receiving. As I tried to use it more and more and tried to actually install or configure applications, I again would run into these frustrating errors that lead me to wasting hours on the Manjaro message board trying to find solutions.
That's when my good friend, and founder of Wide Angle Analytics, Jarek Rozanski, advised me to switch to an Ubutuntu based distro. The reasoning being that the biggest and most popular distro will likely be more polished and is less prone to these types of errors. He was also speaking from personal experience. It totally made sense, If I wanted to get a Windows like experience with the least amount of hassles, going with the most popular and established distro would be more likely to meet that goal.
Switching to Mint
Back to my research, I found that the majority of the popular and polished distros were Ubuntu/Debian based. What that means is that they start out with an Ubuntu release then it gets modified with some tweaks and UI changes. Yet they still had access to the same software repositories as Ubuntu, including the new and controversial Snap store. The most attractive one of those was Linux Mint. Mint appeared to be a mature and polished, Ubuntu based distro, that was specifically designed with people making the switch fromWindows, in mind. So I went back and reflashed my USB drive with Minto and installed it on top of my old Manjaro install. The first thing I noticed about Mint, is that they use their in house developed desktop environment called “Cinnamon” at first glance it appears pleasant and easy to use, but within a few days I found it somewhat lacking in refinement. The KDE desktop environment that I had experienced with Manjaro was far superior. Both from a visual and functional perspective.
Linux being the customizable beast that it is, meant that I could install the KDE desktop environment in addition to the stock Cinnamon desktop. It was relatively easy to do, and once I customized the desktop to mike liking I was off to the races. It took me about a week of fiddling around with the settings to get the desktop environment setup exactly the way I like it. In the meantime I managed to install my favorite privacy focused web browser “Waterfox”, and even installed that older version of MS Office I had lying around.
As I suspected, switching to the most popular desktop Linux architecture (Ububtu/Debian), made the switch a lot easier for a newcomer like myself. This meant I didn't have to spend hours dutifully copying and pasting commands I didn't understand into the terminal, in the hope that they will do whatever magic they are supposed to do. Nor did I have to worry about having to hunt for the software I wanted to use. Most importantly I found it a lot simpler to get help online for the popular distros when you needed it.
Linux Mint with the KDE desktop just worked! I could actually do all my normal work and leisure activities on it without too much difficulty and the learning curve was nowhere near as steep as I had anticipated. All my hardware just worked out of the box with no additional drivers or plugins needed. Even my high end 144Hz, 34” ultrawide monitor worked at the proper settings without any adjustments.
Ofcourse, as with anything, there are some low spots that could be improved upon. For example my Logitech M2 mouse’s thumbwheel can not be assigned to the volume control like I had in Windows, and that's due to the driver software from Logitech not being available on Linux. As it always seems to be with Linux, there are ways to make it work, but they are just beyond my technical abilities. Even though there are thousands of applications available for download, only a small fraction of them are useful or of high quality.
Is Linux ready to be a desktop operating system replacement for Windows? There is a running joke in tech circles that “The year XXXX will be the year of the Linux desktop”, and it's repeated annually for comical effect. I would say, if you are somewhat tech savvy and know what a terminal is, then a resounding yes. The privacy and security aspects alone make it a worthwhile endeavor even with the learning curve attached.
I love that I don’t have to worry about malware and viruses anymore. I like that I can have privacy by default and don’t need to install extra software or always be in a race with Microsoft to constantly be plugging their privacy holes. I especially like not being spied on by my own OS, and not having all my online activities recorded 24/7.
That being said, there are still some issues occuring that should not be happening in Linux, if it is to have a chance a tever unseating Microsoft Windows from the OS throne. As I was writing this article, my Mint Linux install became unusable and I am unable to boot into the machine. This happened, I suspect, because I tried to format a secondary hard drive I had on that machine where Windows was installed as a dual boot. Ironically because I thought I didn’t need my training wheels anymore.
Once I restarted the system, it would no longer boot into Linux, nor Windows. This was frustrating to say the least, and now I have to reinstall and reconfigure everything. I can only imagine the horror a less technical person would feel, if they had to deal with a similar situation.
Despite these tribulations, I will still give Linux my full throated support to anyone who is tired of the Microsoft hegemony and their callous disregard to our privacy and security. In this era of constant surveillance, sustained attacks on free speech, and the concentration of power in the hands of the few, Linux, is a beacon of hope in the Operating System dystopia of the twenties.