Windows is Spying on You and Linux is the Answer
We’re all worried about protecting our privacy online, but many people are unaware of the extent to which operating systems such as Windows and Mac OS are systematically collecting our data. Countless companies record data about almost everything we do on our computers and phones. From browsing websites to using Office software, a digital footprint of our actions is often left behind and swept up by Silicone Valley.
Windows is the most common personal operating system on the planet, and it’s collecting hundreds of data points on an hourly basis. Chances are you’re using Windows now, or at least know someone who does. With all the recent news on different ways that companies like Microsoft collect data from its users, it makes sense to take a closer look at our beloved Windows 10.
When we hear people say that Windows spies on its users they’re talking primarily about the collection of telemetrics. That’s a fancy word for all the information about you that your computer sends back to the software company; this is known as calling home. This collection process occurs silently in the background without the user being made aware that it’s happening.
If you use a program like WireShark to look at all the background traffic on your internet connection, you’d see thousands of connections to Microsoft over the course of just a couple of days. The data sent to Microsoft includes information about your computer’s settings, what programs you use, the websites you view, how often you use your computer, etc. The full list is a lot longer, but the point is clear: Microsoft collects a digital library of information about you and how you interact with your computer. But when it comes to better protecting your digital life, the answer might be easier than you think.
There are programs, such as StopWindowsSpying, that try to restrict your computer from calling home to Microsoft’s servers by blocking known bad server addresses. But these are band-aids that offer an imperfect solution. They don’t solve the root of the problem which is the fact Windows 10 was programmed with collecting telemetric data at the core of its design. Apple is also guilty of collecting data from its users, and while they have a comprehensive policy of protecting the user data they store, they’re still gathering information on unsuspecting users.
Simply put, these operating systems were programmed with the ability to spy on you, and it’s all in the fine print when the program is installed. Instead of trying to fix the glaring privacy concerns with quick fixes that only patch the problem, there is a better way and it’s free. The answer is Linux. It’s the operating system responsible for running most of the internet. Most people are still unfamiliar with Linux since it lacks the marketing money that drives companies like Microsoft and Apple, but despite the lack of mainstream fanfare, it offers a well-tuned alternative that is superior in many ways.
Linux can be just as simple to use as Windows 10, it’s easy on the eyes, and it can be found almost everywhere. Mac OSX is a highly modified version of Linux which is designed and owned by Apple. When Google developed Android OS for mobile devices like phones and tablets, they started with a foundation based almost entirely on Linux. So most people have used Linux but just don’t know it. Because of the stability and security offered by Linux, it’s what powers the majority of servers that handle a large percentage of the world’s internet traffic, which ironically includes many servers owned by Microsoft and Apple.
One reason Linux is so widespread is the vast choices in available versions, also called distributions, that users can pick based on their needs and comfort level. Some distributions, such as Ubuntu and Mint, are easy to use and look very similar to Windows or Mac OS. Other distributions like Arch Linux and Debian are more streamlined and technical, intended for power users and professionals. As mentioned before, a majority of commercial servers run trimmed down Linux distributions to serve their network traffic.
One of the most noteworthy characteristics of Linux is that almost all of the distributions and software is available at no cost. Distributions such as Ubuntu are developed and maintained by companies who offer the software to users for free. Canonical, the company responsible for developing and maintaining Ubuntu, get their cash flow from offering technical support for commercial clients who use their products to run servers and business workstations.
Other Linux distributions are maintained by groups of volunteer programmers and are usually geared towards power users and early adopters. Mainstream distributions such as Ubuntu and Mint are arguably as easy to use as Windows and Mac OS in every way, including the user friendly automatic installation process.
The reason Linux distributions like Ubuntu are less intrusive in privacy than Windows comes down to the programmers mission statement and how transparent the source code is to the general public. Linux distributions and software typically falls under the category of free and open source [FOSS], which follows a paradigm of offering free and accessible information and software for the betterment of technology. Microsoft’s mission is to generate profit by selling software; in turn they collect data about you to more efficiently market their products and services.
Some companies such as Facebook, Skype and Instagram collect data and sell it to third-party online advertisers, who then send you spam email and targeted online advertisements based on the information about you that was bought and sold. And if that’s not enough to induce some paranoia, there’s no way to ensure the collected data doesn’t end up in the hands of criminals or government agencies. While the individual bits of data collected are partly stripped of personally identifying information and shouldn’t be enough to identify you on their own, when enough points of data are pieced together profiles can be constructed that can pin point individuals with shocking accuracy.
Another reason Linux is more secure than Windows is due to the transparency of the code. Companies like Apple and Microsoft keep their source code secret so it can’t be stolen or copied by competitors, which means independent security analysts have a harder time searching for possible security exploits.
On the other hand most Linux distributions are free, and unlike Windows or Mac OS the Linux source code is open source. Open source means the source code which runs the software is available for anyone to download and view. This makes it easier for independent security analysts to audit the code for any privacy or security concerns. In contrast, the general public is unable to view or audit the full source code for Windows or Mac OS; this makes it difficult to understand everything that’s happening deep under the hood.
If you can navigate around Windows or Mac OS then you can easily do the same with Ubuntu or Linux Mint. They’re both simple to install and the general functions like using programs, navigating files, or playing video games, are all very similar to Windows or Mac OS. Installing a program from a huge library of free software is as easy as going to the Ubuntu or Mint version of an app store.
Professional grade Office suites such a LibreOffice or graphical editing software like GIMP are available at no cost. There are paid applications for Linux but the majority of applications are free and open source [FOSS]. The FOSS community is active and growing fast, so most of the free software is commercial grade and works without any fuss. With help from companies like Steam, many of the newest and most popular video games can be played on Linux with the same compatibility as a Windows 10 machine.
Installing Linux not only gives you back some privacy, it offers freedom with full customisation of the desktop through themes. Search online for ‘Linux desktops’ to get an idea of how great it can look when tweaked to individual tastes and colour schemes. By using themes and desktop environments you can change almost everything about how Linux looks; everything from the colour scheme to the system icons and fonts can be tweaked. For people that want to individualise the look and feel of their computer desktops, nothing else offers the flexibility of Linux to customise the desktop environment.
Instead of ditching Windows and diving head first it’s possible to dual boot your existing Windows or Mac OS system with Linux without having to delete anything. After installation it’s as simple as choosing which system you’d like to use when booting the computer. You can also boot Linux straight from a USB drive to test various distributions without installing anything on your computer. There is endless information and guides online about switching to Linux, including many forums and terrific video tutorials on YouTube that make the transition clear and easy. The online Linux community is huge and active, so any issues you might come across have already been solved with detailed tutorials available online that are only a web search away.
It’s no longer a secret that companies like Microsoft regularly collect data about your interactions with their products. While big tech companies claim that you cannot be personally identified from the data they store, this is simply not the case given the sheer quantity of data collected, which over time makes it possible to de-anonymise individuals even in large urban centers. Linux distributions won’t typically collect this data and the privacy settings to control data collection are transparent and effective; unlike Windows which doesn’t allow one to fully opt out from data collection.
Linux can be easily tailored for your preferences by using themes, and depending on the distribution you choose it’s arguably more intuitive to use than Windows. The best part is the price of Linux and most of it’s amazing software: free. For no cost you can install a stable, user friendly, and secure operating system that can completely replace all the functionality of Windows or Mac OS without the telemetric data collection.
If you’re not ready to make a full commitment to Linux, it’s easy to install it alongside your existing Windows or Mac OS operating system to have the best of both. By having a dual boot installation, switching between Windows or Mac OS and Linux requires just a quick system restart. Ubuntu is one of the easiest distributions for beginners and is an excellent place to begin. You can find more information about Ubuntu, including documentation and guides, at the Ubuntu Community Help Wiki found at www.help.ubuntu.com/community