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Asus Just Gave You 1 Million Reasons To Switch From Windows To Linux

Cyber-security and antivirus company Kaspersky dropped a bomb on Asus laptop users this week, revealing that malware was distributed through the Asus Live Update utility. It masqueraded as a legitimate security update, and even boasted a “verified” certificate — hosted on Asus servers — to make it appear valid. Kaspersky has deemed this attack “one of the biggest supply-chain incidents ever.” Such attacks spiked 78% between 2017 and 2018. This shouldn’t raise alarms for just Asus users. It should prompt you to seriously consider whether you want Windows on your PC. Because the possibility of this ever happening on a desktop Linux OS like Ubuntu is minuscule.

My own Asus Republic of Gamers laptop — now running Linux

Jason Evangelho

How Serious Is ShadowHammer?

In the long tradition of scary codenames for such attacks, Kaspersky has labeled the attack “ShadowHammer.” The company says that according to its statistics, more than 57,000 users of Kaspersky Lab products (such as Kaspersky Anti-Virus) have already installed it. However, they estimate that its true reach extends to 1 million Asus computers.

To my knowledge this is only eclipsed by the infamous CCleaner attack, which was distributed to 2.7 million Windows PCs.

The motivations for the malware attack are unclear, but it apparently targeted only 600 specific MAC addresses. Once found, the attack would escalate to install more software to further compromise the system. There doesn’t seem to be a reason that the attackers couldn’t have activated this on every single computer affected.

For an informative and detailed discussion on this attack, listen to TechSnap Episode 400.

What’s even more frightening is that Kaspersky discovered the same type of technique used against the Asus Live Update software was also leveraged against three other vendors. The company promised to reveal more substantial information at an upcoming Security Analyst Summit in Singapore.

When contacted by Kaspersky, The Verge reports that Asus evidently denied the attack originated from its servers. In a follow-up press release, however, Asus did acknowledge that this was a “sophisticated attack” on its Live Update servers.

No apology was issued. This is not how you build trust. (Especially since this is far from being the first security blunder Asus has made.)

Asus has since patched the Live Update software and issued a tool for users to determine if they owned one of the specific computers targeted. Given the circumstances, I’m not even going to link to it, but it’s available via this press release page.

An FAQ posted alongside the press release has a stinging piece of advice for users who were affected by the malware attack: “Immediately run a backup of your files and restore your operating system to factory settings,” it states. “This will completely remove the malware from your computer. In order to ensure the security of your information, ASUS recommends that you regularly update your passwords.”

What really rattles my cage about this situation is the fact that Kaspersky uses the word “teaser” in the URL associated with its ShadowHammer post, as if this is some kind of movie trailer. Then the company warns that three other Asia-based software vendors were attacked using the same method without revealing who they are.

But all of this information is just background for the real point I’m trying to make.

Why Ubuntu (And Linux In General) Is Safer

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Dell put forth considerable effort into making the popular XPS 13 the perfect Ubuntu laptop

Jason Evangelho

Consider how many companies have independent control over the software and hardware inside your Windows PC. Intel, AMD, Dell, Nvidia, Realtek among several others. The vast majority of the code they use running on your computer is not open source. That means it’s not subject to inspection by the hundreds of millions of people using it. The code can’t be independently verified. The code comes from multiple locations across multiple update utilities.

On Ubuntu and other Linux distributions, my firmware updates, software updates and security updates come from a single source: the operating system’s built-in software center.

This next part is important: only a select few individuals at Asus are responsible for ensuring the software and firmware being sent through the Asus Live Update utility is safe. And it’s almost certain no one at Microsoft saw the code before it before it went out to those 1 million Asus laptop users.

Rather than base my entire argument about Linux being safer on personal experience or subjective opinions, I reached out to Alex Murray at Canonical. Murray is the Security Tech Lead for Ubuntu, a Linux distribution used by hundreds of millions. It powers everything from IoT devices to home desktops; supercomputers to the web servers delivering the majority of your experiences on the internet. Netflix is powered by Ubuntu, as is Amazon Web Services. Outside your home, Lyft and Uber are powered by Ubuntu.

My question for Murray was straightforward. Can something like ShadowHammer happen on Linux?

Murray admits that while this sort of attack is a possibility on Linux, it would be a lot harder to pull off.

Ubuntu is based on Debian, one of the the largest and most mature Linux distributions available. “Many of our source packages originate from Debian where we add Ubuntu-specific patches on top,” Murray says.

As such, Murray explains that there are “many, many people who can detect any possible malicious changes to a software package.” That’s the beauty of open source. Changes are submitted publicly, and every line of code can be scrutinized.

Of course, there needs to be a more elaborate system of checks and balances that doesn’t rely solely on community.

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Alex Murray, Ubuntu Tech Lead at Canonical Ltd.

Alex Murray

“Various teams of Canonical employees are responsible for maintaining the packages in the ‘main’ section of the Ubuntu software archive, and as such we provide further review and oversight of the source code in these packages,” Murray says. “Importantly, only trusted individuals are allowed to publish software package updates, which again raises the bar to prevent this kind of attack. Finally, we have a strong and dedicated community of developers and users who help to provide an even further level of ‘community’ oversight as well – which gives us a good defense in depth approach to detecting this kind of attack.”

In a nutshell, this means even if a trusted developer is compromised, there are various other individuals who will likely take notice.

But even that isn’t enough, so Canonical takes things a step further.

“From an end-user point of view, Ubuntu uses a signed archive approach where each package is cryptographically hashed and the list of hashes signed in such a manner that our package manager will not install packages which fail the signature and integrity checks,” Murray explains.

This means that even if an Ubuntu mirror (an external software source not directly managed by Canonical) was compromised and someone uploaded malicious copies of packages there, it would fail the signature check and would not be installed.

“We offer digital signatures to verify the integrity of the installation ISO images as well,” Murray says. “So together with the repository signatures, users can be confident that the software they are downloading and installing is what is published by Ubuntu, and with all the various reviews outlined above, we have many opportunities to detect any possible malicious changes to the software packages being published.”

Beyond these methods of ensuring security for its users, I’d recommend this article which explains in detail how Ubuntu delivers system updates and why it’s a more elegant and less frustrating experience than on Windows.

Securing Firmware Through The Blockchain

Firmware updates are an often overlooked — but easily manipulated — potential attack source. One of my favorite Linux distributions, Pop!_OS, uses the power of blockchain to ensure that the firmware updates being delivered to its users have no possible way of being manipulated. And they take an amazing approach to their server setup.

“Firmware updates are delivered using a build server, which contains the new firmware, and a signing server, which verifies that the new firmware came from inside the company,” writes parent company System76. “The two servers are only connected via a serial cable. The lack of a network between the two means that one server cannot be accessed if entry is achieved through the other server.”

System76 sets up multiple build servers alongside that primary one. For a firmware update to be verified, it must be identical on all servers. “If even one build server contains a compromised firmware update, this update cannot proceed to signing and will not be delivered to our customers,” System76 says.

This is very similar to how cryptocurrency mining works, and is arguably a more useful and forward-thinking implementation of blockchain.

Choose Linux

The bottom line is that Windows has too many potential attack points, most of which are not directly overseen by the very company who develops the operating system. The vast majority of the code cannot be audited by the community. There are less checks and balances in place to ensure that these attacks are prevented. After seeing how Ubuntu and various other Linux distributions ensure the security of their users, the Microsoft Windows approach starts to seem a lot less sane.

And if you’re wary of Linux because you think its archaic and not user-friendly, here are some articles that may change your mind, including one to help find the perfect OS to suit your needs:

Since joining Forbes in 2012, I’ve contributed to gaming and technology features on PCWorld and Computer Shopper. You can also find me on Jupiter Broadcasting where I h…

Source: Asus Just Gave You 1 Million Reasons To Switch From Windows To Linux

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5 Reasons You Should Switch From Windows To Linux Right Now – Jason Evangelho

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When I published the highlights of my journey switching from Windows to Linux on my everyday laptop, I was floored at the engagement it received across all corners of the web. I also voiced an admittedly wrong assumption within the article itself that it wouldn’t attract many eyeballs, and yet it became one of my most viewed pieces this year. From where I’m sitting, that tells me a ton of people are interested — are at least actively curious — about ditching Windows and making the jump to Linux.

With that in mind, I wanted to present five reasons that may lead you to consider switching. Know that these are subjective, and they’re targeted at the average Windows user and not folks who rely on Windows-exclusive applications for a paycheck.

One thing to know right up front: the modern Linux desktop OS is no longer the obtuse, bewildering and command line driven thing it used to be. Not remotely.

1: Linux Gets Out Of Your Way

Windows has a tendency to beg for attention. It’s like the kid in school who desperately wants to be noticed and is borderline belligerent about it. “Please use me,” cries Cortana. “Hey, would you recommend me to a friend or colleague?” asks Redmond. “Hi, I noticed you’re using Chrome. Edge is totally better” insists the Edge browser. “This would be so much easier if you signed into a Microsoft account!” “Hey, remember Skype?”

And so on. . .

If you want an operating system that stays out of your way, some of the more popular flavors of Linux like Ubuntu might be the cure.

Ubuntu hasn’t nagged me about anything. Canonical, the company behind it, has a merchandise shop but they’re not begging me to buy stuff. They offer paid professional support on various levels, but those reminders are nowhere to be found in my day-to-day usage. The company has several sources of income, but they’re not beating down my desktop about it. And it’s really, really refreshing.

2: You’re Not A Slave To The Terminal

From both my research and personal experience, Linux usability has evolved substantially in the past 5 to 10 years. When I first dabbled with it years ago installation was relatively simple, but post-install configuration was a nightmare. You had to spend a lot of time in Terminal, issuing text commands to troubleshoot hardware issues. Issuing more text commands to install graphics drivers. That required digging deep into forums and a heavy amount of googling.

The geeks and power users in the house would call it fun (there is a certain thrill to installing a piece of software and everything it depends on with a single line of text)! For the average Windows user, it was a complete deal breaker. I think many of you still have that perception of Linux. Thankfully, it doesn’t really apply anymore.

Taking my personal experience with Ubuntu version 18.04 as an example, I didn’t need to touch Terminal. All of the hardware on my Dell XPS 13 was automatically detected, right down to a default 200% text scaling for the laptop’s 4K display.

Will this apply to every machine you install Linux on? Probably not. Then again, Windows isn’t flawless with hardware detection either. At least with Ubuntu, my WiFi networks and sound don’t randomly disappear.

3: Installing Software Is Even Easier

I know there’s this perception that Linux is complicated. I thought so too. Based on my experience years ago it was. Hell, I remember downloading a package, opening up Terminal, navigating DOS-style to the location, extracting it, granting the appropriate permissions and sometimes even having to compile it first.

Now installing software is even easier than on Windows. On Ubuntu for example, the included Software Center contains a wealth of programs across a wide range of categories (news, productivity, graphic design, audio and video editing, etc). To install them, you click Install. You don’t have to browse to the site, download the .exe package, launch that, progress through a series of license agreements and dialogue windows.

Typically you just click Install.

Relatively new to Linux are “Snaps.” These are universal packages that install easily across various distributions like Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Debian and others. The Snap Store contains a ridiculous amount of apps to choose from, and not just the “open source clones” you may associate Linux with. Spotify, Telegram, Slack, Blender, VLC, OBS Studio, stuff like that are there.

And again, installing these apps is a breeze! So is updating them. . .

4: Updates aren’t a headache. They’re glorious

Have you ever sat and contemplated how much time Windows steals from you with its updates? Or how many times it has rebooted at the most inconvenient times, only to keep you waiting longer while  it configures those updates? Or how the majority of software you have installed outside of the core operating system has to be updated separately?

With Ubuntu, sure, you’ll get a notification. You may be required to restart, but in my experience you won’t be forced to do so. And, like Windows, you can fine-tune how updates are handled.

Here’s the glorious part: unlike Windows, Ubuntu updates your other software too. All in one batch. No need to update it directly through the individual app and then step through a series of dialogue windows. Less notifications, less nags, less time invested. You just update your system and your software all at once. It’s genuinely elegant and this came as a surprise to me.

5: The Linux Community

The response to my previous article was overwhelming, but it wasn’t a case of Linux enthusiasts beating their chests and admonishing Windows. It was a ridiculously passionate community taking the time to suggest alternate software for my needs and detailed tips to make my Linux experience even better. I didn’t ask for this, but they blew up my notifications for days on every social network I exist on.

Digging deeper, you find a surprisingly helpful bunch of people on all corners of the internet willing to invest their time into helping people just like me make the transition. Granted, I haven’t spent a ton of time mingling with this community but it made a very positive first impression on me. I’ve heard people call them a sect, but if I hit a stumbling block I feel like this community would be bending over backwards to lend an assist.

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