The first personal computer i purchased was infected with the Windows 95 virus. I’m sure i hadn’t even heard about Linux at that point and, while we’re at it, let’s get something straight right off the bat: Linux is not an operating system! Linux is the part of Linux-based operating systems known as the kernel. I’m a victim of this misunderstanding myself and, if there are no objections, i’m gonna go ahead and use the term ‘Linux’ here as if i never knew the difference.
Anyone who has had the misfortune of running Windows 95 might agree that it was an unstable, bug-riddled piece of crap. The Windows 98 virus was much better, relatively speaking, but still full of problems and annoyances. I have to say though that it was a pretty good gaming OS. XP largely destroyed the gaming aspect of 98 when it was first released, but things improved a great deal as it matured. I used a heavily tweaked version of XP Professional for many years before migrating to a heavily tweaked version Windows 7 somewhere around 2011 or so (us weathered Windows users were smart enough to skip Vista entirely). By the way, did you know there are people still using 95 and 98 as their daily drivers apparently? I’m not sure what to think about that, but i wouldn’t be surprised if they are safer with 95 than 10 these days since there’s probably no one writing viruses for the stupid things any longer.
Around the time i was using Windows 98, or rather around the time it was using me, as Richard Stallman might say, i started to become interested in the inner workings of Windows, computer security and digital privacy. The exceedingly bright chap that i am (0.003% of the time), i quickly deduced that running a closed-source, proprietary operating system from a company well-worth hating was probably not conducive to maintaining an acceptable level of control over my digital belongings. This revelation was further reinforced upon discovering the forum post, ‘Microsoft’s Really Hidden Files‘ , by “The Riddler” on f**kmicrosoft.com (i try to run a clean shop here). I believe that domain was eventually confiscated by Microsoft, which i think is quite fitting, don’t you? I think they should change it to ‘f**kingmicrosoft.com’, a domain name i think we can all identify with, and use that instead of the one they have now. Anyway, my reading of that article eventually led to my being put in contact with a cop who, as i recall, had something to do with computers or computer forensics or was the computer geek at work or maybe he knew what a computer was or something. It was a long time ago. I asked him several questions about what kind of personal data Windows stores it and how it stores it and how that data is used by law enforcement (LE) to screw over the people that paid for an OS that spies on them. Having thought i’d established an acceptable level of trust with the guy after several emails over the course of several days/weeks, i finally uncorked the question that was burning a hole in my inquisitive little bean: Can LE access a Windows computer remotely without first installing a RAT (Remote Access Tool – think ‘Trojan’)? His non-answer answer was, “What do you think?”. At that point he apparently thought i didn’t need to know any more and so he broke off contact as i recall.
I don’t think it was long after that when i started playing with Linux… or was it the other way around? I recall booting Mandrake, Red Hat, SUSE, Debian and possibly one or two others over the course of several years and every attempt i made to familiarize myself with Linux resulted in utter disappointment followed by regret followed by my retreat back to my safe space: Windows. Part of my Linux problem was that it worked quite differently and so i simply wasn’t comfortable with it. Another problem was that every distribution had major bugs. Lots of them. And they still do. ALL of them. I found Linux to be very fragile compared to Windows. It was also too limiting. Often there were no good software counterparts to Windows stuff and the hardware drivers were garbage in many cases. If a driver worked at all, that’s pretty much all it did. Most of the granular settings for coaxing the most out of your expensive hardware simply didn’t exist. The lack of stability was the worst of it though. I remember booting a very mainstream distribution and changing some benign setting for something and *poof*, it never booted again. On another occasion i was playing around with another mainstream distribution when my drunk neighbor chainsawed my electric pole because he needed firewood (that totally did not happen) which caused the power to go out (a BPS? what’s that?). That OS never booted again either. What the hell??? I rarely had these kinds of basic problems with Windows 98, much less with XP which was a full 3 orders of magnitude more robust than Linux at that time (it’s only 2 now).
Though i was fine with Windows from a usability standpoint, the fact that it was propitiatory, and the associated risks to my privacy, never left my mind and so i decided, come hell or high water, Windows 7 would be my last Microsoft OS, period! Then Windows 10 came out but once again we Microsoft-hating Windows users were smart enough to block the so-called “upgrade” that the monopolistic self-serving morons in Redmond wanted to infect us with. The utter, in-your-face assault to personal privacy that 10 presented was/is unbelievable. I was so disillusioned with Microsoft at that point that, even though i wasn’t even running 10, i dumped Windows, switched to Linux and deleted all my heavily customized Windows installation images and license keys in order to make returning to that stink-hole as difficult and expensive as possible. I was going to run Linux whether i liked it or not (i don’t) and that was that! This video of a guy ranting on Windows 10 kind of sums up my sentiments regarding Windows:
Linux has come a long way since i last went distro-hopping over a decade ago, but i have to say that some of the same problems exist still, though to a lessor degree in general. And although the drivers cover a much wider array of hardware, they can still be problematic or simply wimpy. For example, there is nothing like the good old kX Project sound card drivers for Linux that i’m aware of and therefor you cannot take full advantage of the Sound Blaster cards that the kX Project supported. Nowhere was i able to find a driver for my laptop camera either. Stability is still an issue as well, though it appears Linux is more tolerant of hard resets at least. I’m currently running
Linux Mint Manjaro Linux, but when i was running Mint, even after a couple of major versions and plenty of updates, on occasion my computer would still boot or resume from standby to a black screen where the log-on screen should’ve been. Really? The solution was to simply jab the ‘Esc’ key which caused the log-on screen to appear, but this is one of those most basic annoyances that simply should not exist.
And the software repositories! Why ‘repositories‘ and not ‘repository‘? Why does nearly every flavor of Linux seem to have its own software repository? To me this is a colossal waste of time and resources, including the server infrastructure required to host all these repositories. Why do package maintainers have to make changes to OpenOffice, for example, to get it to run on different distributions? Or another desktop environment? Is this not as ass-backwards as i think it is? This can be very frustrating for the end user since the software package they want or need may not be available for the distribution they like, or perhaps not for the particular desktop environment they chose. Oh, yes, let’s not forget the graphical environments; the Linux desktops. Linux is all about choice, so they say, but do we really need 20+ buggy desktop environments to choose from? I’d gladly sacrifice half of those choices if there were 5 good desktops to choose from and i’d bet a lot of other folks would gladly do the same.
And why are there so many different distributions of Linux? There are somewhere around 300 different flavors of Linux at the moment, every one likely requiring significant resources in terms of developers, project managers, funding and infrastructure. I understand Linux is all about choice, but who the hell needs this many choices? And at what cost do all these choices come? How many of these distributions are a result of ego battles among developers? How many are actually fundamentally different as opposed to simply having a different logo or set of icons or whatever? Imagine how the development pace and quality of Linux-based OSs would skyrocket if the people working with some of the more obscure distributions contributed their talent to the more mainstream distros that 99.9% of us end users actually care about. Here’s the “choices” you get with Linux:
- you get to choose what distro you want and, in doing so, the average user has little choice but to use whatever software is in the repository that’s compatible with it
- you get to choose the desktop you want to use and, in doing so, you neuter the selection of software you can use or end up installing massive dependency packages
- you get to choose that you want more security holes than Windows if this guy is right
- you get to choose that you want truck loads more bugs than Windows
- if you decide to run a Long Term Support edition of Linux (Mint for example), you get to choose to run often outdated and sometimes buggy and feature deprived software because that’s pretty much all that will be available in your repository
- you get to choose to spend hours scouring the web for solutions to trivial problems that should never exist and then spend more time staring at a terminal running commands you don’t understand but pray will work and too often don’t
- you get to choose to have this window look like this and that window look like that because you hate consistency – think that setting a mouse cursor theme is system wide? or a window theme? HA! think again!
- you get to choose to run an OS that just feels a lot less robust than Windows
So why did i choose Linux if i have so many gripes, you ask? Because i had no choice. I wasn’t going to continue to run an operating system that i knew was spying on me, constantly sending who knows what to who knows where. Even with all the registry tweaks and all the hosts file localhost redirects and all the firewall rules and all the 3rd party cleaning and anti-spying tools, etc., you can never trust a proprietary operating system, period.
The following presentation titled ‘Windows is AWSOME!‘ by Bryan Lunduke (which he gave at a Linux conference by the way) will provide another answer as to why i made the switch. It’s a really fun watch too…
For the average user Linux may not be as good as Windows from a usability perspective, but it’s not authored by an f’n evil company. It’s not proprietary. It’s code isn’t hidden. It doesn’t have back doors built in. Its licenses aren’t restrictive. It isn’t designed to spy on its users and make them the product. Its objectives aren’t based on greed and control. In a way, it’s not what Linux is, it’s what it isn’t that makes it attractive to people like myself who care about what organizations, values and ethical standards they want to support, now and in the future. People who care about what kind of world we want to live in and what kind of world we leave for our children because there is much more to the free software ethic than “free” software. It’s a way of living.
Although the path to Linux has not been free of stumps, it has been worth the journey. It’s very comforting to me to know that i can trust my operating system to not engage in nefarious behavior behind my back. It’s nice to not have to create piles of firewall rules in an attempt to keep it and its software from phoning home. It’s very nice to not have to evaluate every update, wondering if Microsoft will try yet again to push some garbage down my throat that i despise. It’s nice to not have to deal with anti-virus software, which provides a false sense of security anyway. It’s comforting to know that Linux doesn’t lend itself well to viruses and unethical software developers or companies. And as for the problem of multiple software repositories, at least you can largely trust the software in those repositories which present a convenient one-stop-shop for most of what you need.
If you decide to give Linux a spin, i might recommend Linux Mint because it’s currently one of the more popular and polished Linux distributions that’s oriented toward beginners. It’s easy to install and use and it comes with a lot of decent software as well as most/all of the hardware drivers one will need to get their computer and peripherals up and running. The best way to try Mint is to download an ISO image and write it to a bootable USB memory stick, after which you can boot the stick and try it for as long as you like without affecting your Windows installation. If you later decide to install it, you can do so right from an icon on the Mint desktop. Everything you need to know should be in the installation guide.
Start with Mint if you’re new to Linux, but if you ever get bored with it and begin to feel more comfortable with Linux, have a look at Manjaro which is an up-and-comer that aims to be a user friendly rolling release based on Arch Linux. The primary advantages with Manjaro are that you never have to reinstall the OS since it’s a roller and the software repo is quite large, plus you can access the AUR which provides another plethora of user maintained software packages, though you have to be more careful there. One gripe i have with Manjaro is that Pamac, the graphical front-end for Pacman, is not as nice as the Synaptic and apt packages that come with Mint, at least not in my opinion. Other than that, i’ve been fairly pleased so far.
The Tor Project, hailed as a bulwark against the encroaching surveillance state, has received funding from US government agency the BBG and cooperates with intelligence agencies, newly released documents reveal.
Tor, free software which enables anonymous communication over the internet, is a “privatized extension of the very same government that it claimed to be fighting,” claims journalist Yasha Levine, who obtained 2,500 pages of correspondence about the project via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
Now openly admitted, governments and militaries around the world employ armies of keyboard warriors to spread propaganda and disrupt their online opposition. Their goal? To shape public discourse around global events in a way favourable to their standing military and geopolitical objectives. Their method? The Weaponization of Social Media. This is The Corbett Report.
Once upon a time…
I touched on this story in my article, Firefox Configuration Guide for Privacy Freaks and Performance Buffs, but i wanted to give it a dedicated page and expand on it because i keep coming across bits of information which seem to verify something i was told that is rather disturbing.
So i once sold a PC to a guy who said he had worked for the government either directly or as a contractor, i don’t recall which and he didn’t state which department he worked for. He said he had a security clearance and, as i recall, it was a crypto clearance. He left me with the strong impression that he wasn’t going to provide a lot of detail as to what exactly he did, however i had no reason to disbelieve anything he said since he seemed genuine and very matter-of-fact. Our time together was short because he had to be somewhere else, but we chatted a while and he touched upon some extremely interesting topics that i wanted to know more about and so i suggested that we continue our conversation through encrypted email. He looked me and responded with a three word reply that stuck with me ever since: “Encryption is useless.”.
Obviously encryption is not useless, but i think what he meant by that statement was that, whatever government department or agency he worked for, they had the ability to break whatever encryption existed at that time. While i was somewhat skeptical about his statement back then in 2003 or so, that skepticism has since evaporated. First of all we have to consider the computing power that the “intelligence” communities have access to. Let’s assume that you’re encrypting an email using some supposedly highly secure encryption technique along with a very long and secure passphrase, and let’s further assume that it would take roughly 10,000 years for the average computer to break it. Would you feel confidant using such encryption? Well, what happens if that code breaking computer is 10,000 times more powerful than yours? And what if you chain together 1,000 of those computers? Breaking that encryption might now take just a few hours. Does the government not have access to computers that are orders of magnitude more powerful than anything the general public has? And what might they have that we don’t know about?
Whether encryption is useless or not depends entirely upon the threat that we want to mitigate i think. For example, if you wanted to download copyrighted content and protect yourself from having your ISP monitor your internet traffic and send you nasty-grams, then encryption is certainly not useless. However given what i have read and heard over the years, i strongly suspect that encryption is not effective if it is, for example, the NSA that decides to target you and i think that multiple statements and documents released by Edward Snowden verify that. There is perhaps another possibility here though. What if, as some suspect, Snowden was allowed to leak what he did, sort of as a limited hangout? Personally i think Snowden is genuine, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the information in the documents he released wasn’t intended to be released. What if the U.S. intelligence community wanted to quell a potential uprising by we the people? It is apparently a historic fact that one way to accomplish that is to make people think that they are being surveilled which, in turn, compromises their ability to communicate. While i think we can be reasonably certain that everything we say or do on-line, or while in the presence of a smartphone, can be spied upon and stored indefinitely, how does one process such a vast amount of data? Snowden also raises this question and states that the massive, ongoing and patently illegal and unconstitutional data collection practices as employed by intelligence communities are not effective in preventing threats because of its scope. Even with the aid of software, there is still simply too much data to sift through according to what Sonwden and others have said and therefore the tiny fraction of it that is relevant to you personally kind of gets lost in the cloud as long as you don’t wind up on some watch list.
In closing i would say that it doesn’t matter if the threat is real or not, or whether strong encryption can be broken or not. Since we simply cannot know for certain in all instances, we must assume the threats are creditable, however i do not wish to scare people unnecessarily. I think that activists, journalists, whistle-blowers and everyone else should never be dissuaded from communicating, however i also think we need to at least be aware of the threats.
Oh, and by the way, if you ever do receive a copyright notice from your ISP, ignore it and do not acknowledge that you were sent one. If they really intend to prosecute, don’t worry, they will contact you again. Don’t fall into the trap of admitting something which can later be used to prosecute you. If you want some more info in that along those lines, read my article, Dealing With The Fuzz.
Resources used to write this article
- Researchers crack the world’s toughest encryption by listening to the tiny sounds made by your computer’s CPU | ExtremeTech
- How secure is today’s encryption against quantum computers? | betanews
- Revealed: how US and UK spy agencies defeat internet privacy and security | The Guardian
- The NSA Can Beat Almost Any Type of Encryption | Gizmodo
- N.S.A. Able to Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web | The New York Times
- The Clock Is Ticking for Encryption | Computerworld
- NSA Utah Data Center – Serving Our Nation’s Intelligence Community | NSA
- Had a copyright letter from your ISP? Do tell… | The Guardian