Whether it’s on your desktop, laptop, smartphone, or even refrigerator, chances are you will use a variety of different operating systems over the course of a day. But how safe do they keep your activity and personal information? We take a look at some of the most popular operating systems for everyday consumer use and rank them based on privacy and security.
Top operating systems for privacy and security
Since its inception in the mid 1980s, Windows has become the world’s most used desktop operating system. Whether you grew up using 3.11, 95, 98, XP, Vista (ugh), 7, 8 (more ugh), or 10, you’ve probably used Windows at some point in your life. It’s familiar, easy to use, and easy to learn. One of the biggest advantages of Windows is the sheer number of programs available to the operating system, thanks to its market reach. Unsurprisingly, that comes with a huge number of threats.
This year alone has given us a few doozies. Where do we even start?
- In January, a security flaw was discovered that was deemed to be so destructive, the National Security Agency disclosed it to the public.
- In March, a professor from the School of Computer Science and Statistics at Trinity College in Dublin advised that Edge (which comes packaged with Windows 10) was the worst browser for privacy.
- In April, Microsoft confirmed the existence of seven vulnerabilities (which were thankfully patched pretty quickly) that could have left users open to a variety of thefts and attacks.
- In July, a routine update was found to cause a serious security flaw that caused Windows Defender to not open (not that it’s the most secure feature anyhow).
- In September, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a division under Homeland Security, issued an alert to government departments to immediately patch any Windows servers as they would be vulnerable to the Zerologon vulnerability, which rendered any infected system open to external control.
Would we recommend this operating system? No—at least not without undertaking some basic precautions to protect yourself at the very least. You can always install a comparable Linux distribution instead.
Read the Microsoft Privacy Statement here.
As you may have guessed, Chrome OS is Google’s operating system for Chromebook devices. Built on top of Gentoo Linux, Chrome OS is a lightweight operating system designed for simplicity. It is primarily geared toward users who mostly browse the web, edit basic documents, watch Netflix or YouTube videos, and play Android games.
Chromebooks are popular in the education market and account for about 60% of the K-12 market in the U.S., and about 10% internationally. In 2015, concerns were raised about what data Google was collecting on students through Chromebooks and a complaint was lodged with the Federal Trade Commission by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. These days, Chromebooks are seen as far more secure for the education market.
Despite how you may feel about the Chrome browser, Chrome OS seems secure for what it is but that doesn’t mean it isn’t vulnerable to malware. It also has some great rudimentary features to protect Chromebook devices that include sandboxing, verified boot, and a built-in security chip for data encryption. As far as privacy goes there’s not much you can do, but that’s more about how Google Account privacy is generally handled.
Would we recommend this operating system? Maybe—but again, this has more to do with Google rather than Chrome OS.
The exclusive operating system for Apple smartphones and tablets, iOS was considered revolutionary upon its release. When the first iPhone was announced by Steve Jobs at MacWorld in 2007, the world hadn’t seen anything like it before. Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore the importance of it as a catalyst in kick starting the current smartphone landscape.
In 2019, an experiment conducted by The Washington Post found 5,400 hidden app trackers on an employee’s iPhone feeding information back to Apple—Yelp being the biggest culprit, sending device information once every five minutes.
Apple has announced an upcoming change to iOS that lets users easily opt out of data collection when they download an app. Facebook has been highly critical of the move, claiming that privacy changes in iOS 14 could make it harder for small businesses to reach current and future customers, even launching a site to get their point across potentially affected businesses. It seems, however, that Apple can hardly be faulted for this as they’re attempting to be more transparent about how user data is used.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has in the past spoken about the importance of privacy to Apple. Cook stated that one of the biggest challenges in protecting privacy is that many of the infractions relating to it are “invisible,” insofar that consumers have no idea what information regarding their purchases are sold to advertisers. Perhaps the biggest pitfall, in our opinion, is the inability to take full control of your iOS device in the same way that a user can with Android.
Would we recommend this operating system? No—but there’s not much iPhone users can really do about this one, as changing the OS on an iPhone will void its warranty.
Ah, macOS, the Pepsi to Windows’ Coca-Cola. After many years of playing second fiddle to Windows’ dominant position, macOS (previously Mac OS X, then OS X) has grown to occupy a comfortable niche in the desktop operating-system market.
macOS was initially lauded for its virus protection and security features over Windows, but this was later seen more as a symptom of lower adoption rates and usage of the operating system rather than stability. In other words, due to the fact that fewer people were using Macs, hackers were less likely to write viruses or malware to attack macOS devices.
Theoretically, as devices in the macOS ecosystem are limited to a narrower range of products (four desktops and three laptops as of the end of 2020), they should be easier to contain and protect from external threats. Funnily enough, this may not be the case.
The year 2020 was the first time in history that the growth in threats to macOS devices eclipsed those to Windows. It was found that the vast majority of these threats involved tricking users into downloading and running an infected executable. In June 2020, a malware researcher at K7 Lab published their findings on a ransomware called ThiefQuest (or EvilQuest) that disguised itself as a Google Software Update. Once ThiefQuest encrypted a user’s files, it would then install a keylogger, extract passwords, steal credit card numbers, and search for cryptocurrency wallet data.
Following the recent upgrade to Big Sur, Apple faced some criticism over compatibility issues for some services and third-party apps. Accusations of spying were also leveled at Apple when researchers discovered that macOS was sending usage data to Apple’s servers. Apple has since addressed this by ensuring that users aren’t being monitored.
Would we recommend this operating system? Maybe—but we realise that owners of Mac devices may not have a choice in the matter (outside of not upgrading). There are, however, some basic steps you can take to protect your device.
Android has grown from a small startup in Palo Alto in 2003 to being the world’s most used mobile operating system from 2011 to present. It is estimated that there are currently over 2.5 billion active Android devices around the world. Like Windows, those numbers can bring with them a significant number of threats.
Another interesting consideration is that the global used-smartphone market is projected to grow to a value of 67 billion USD by 2023, with the vast majority of those being Android capable devices. What makes this especially concerning is that researchers at a UK-based watchdog called Which? found that more than a billion Android devices older than 2012 are at risk of being hacked. Google estimates that around 42.1% of global Android users are on Version 6.0 of Android or below—with no way to upgrade to a newer security standard.
In terms of privacy, Android gives users a far greater degree of permission control over its immediate competitor iOS. As with Chrome OS, the biggest fear is what Google tracks and monitors from your daily activity.
Would we recommend this operating system? Yes—but not without undertaking significant precautions. What we’d really recommend instead is installing a more secure and privacy-focused Android fork like LineageOS. Read our guide on how to ditch Android and install LineageOS.
The Ubuntu Linux distribution is one of the most well known and widely used alternatives to Windows and macOS. Linux is a family of mostly free, open-source operating systems designed to be highly configurable and therefore better for security and privacy. There are thousands of distributions of Linux, each geared to a specific audience or function. For the purposes of this article, we’re focusing on Ubuntu and some of its derivatives, because of its long-term popularity.
First released in 2004 by Canonical Ltd., Ubuntu is a Debian-based Linux distribution and is released on a six-month cycle, with long-term support releases on a 24-month cycle. The latest versions of Ubuntu are great for security and privacy, specifically because they now include WireGuard technology, Z File System (ZFS) disk encryption, and Secure Shell (SSH) Fast ID Online (FIDO) multi-factor authentication for passwordless login. Ubuntu has also recently started collecting anonymous usage data, but you can easily opt out of this feature and choose to not send any information to Canonical. It’s also worth noting that Canonical is quite transparent with how they use any information they collect by publishing these findings online. Lastly, viruses that affect Linux are still not that common, most likely due to a combination of its lower adoption rates and its increased in-built security features.
Would we recommend this operating system? Yes! Linux is the perfect choice if you want to move away from bigger operating systems, and Ubuntu is one of the best places to start. It’s safe, it’s secure, it’s free—what else could you possibly need?
Read the Ubuntu data privacy statement here.
If you’re in the mood, you can also try other Linux distributions built on top of Ubuntu.
The Elementary OS team is so dedicated to protecting your data that they’ve published their position on privacy along with a breakdown of what they do with the data they collect. Not only do they actively protect your data from themselves, they also protect your data from third parties by utilizing several privacy-forward features in their operating system. This includes a feature to let you know exactly what each app is up to, the ability to know which app is trying to access your location data, and periodically deleting your temporary and trash files.
Would we recommend this operating system? Yes!
Read the Elementary OS privacy statement here.
Pop!_OS was developed by American hardware manufacturer System76, which makes it more compatible with hardware out of the box. Don’t be fooled though, it’s not just Ubuntu re-skinned. In fact, the biggest (and in our opinion, best) difference is the focus on privacy. Pop!_OS enables drive encryption by default and has disabled reporting through Ubuntu.
Would we recommend this operating system? Yes! In fact, this article was written on a device running Pop!_OS.