Netbook Security: A Problem Or A Put-On?

Are netbooks a ticking IT-security time bomb? Not if you remember to ask some simple, common-sense questions before your small business decides to buy.

Matthew McKenzie, Contributor

March 4, 2009

4 Min Read

Are netbooks a ticking IT-security time bomb? Not if you remember to ask some simple, common-sense questions before your small business decides to buy.The first couple of paragraphs on a March 3 Reuters news item set the stage for this tempest in a teapot with a suitably menacing introduction: "Netbook Web surfers beware. That low-cost netbook you're using could be a high-speed gateway into your life, bank accounts, passwords and other personal data.

Netbooks have made headlines since their 2007 launch, making PCs accessible to millions of non-traditional users. But their cheap cost could also carry a steep price tag due to lax security that makes them easier prey for viruses and hackers."

The Reuters article is long on scary-sounding generalizations but very short on specifics. Most notably, it fails to mention either Windows or Linux by name even once, in spite of the fact that both platforms play a prominent role in the netbook market. That's a problem, because there are very real differences between Windows and Linux when it comes to security-related issues.

That doesn't mean "better" versus "worse," although Linux does deliver an advantage in terms of malware vulnerability. Mostly, it simply means that Linux netbook buyers need to ask slightly different security-focused questions than those buying Windows netbooks:

  • Malware protection. Anti-virus software on a Windows netbook isn't an option -- it's an IQ test. The only question you need to ask is whether it comes pre-installed or if you'll have to install it yourself.

    There is less agreement on the need for Linux anti-virus software. Many Linux users don't see any need for the stuff, and the numbers bear them out: There are very few Linux viruses in the wild, and fewer still capable of doing serious damage.

    Still, I understand that some netbook vendors do ship Linux models with anti-virus software included. If you're the risk-averse type or if your business has strict anti-malware policies in place, then rest assured that quality Linux anti-virus software is available, either from commercial software vendors or as free, open-source software.

    Software updates. Installing regular OS and application software updates is another no-brainer. Skipping security updates on any system, whether it runs Linux or Windows, creates security holes that grow bigger -- much bigger -- over time. The same applies to application updates, especially those involving Web browsers or other network-aware apps. Windows users can and should get OS updates automatically from Microsoft. Other applications, such as Web browsers, typically have their own update alert features. This routine can vary somewhat for Linux users. A major distro like Ubuntu, for example, typically offers automatic updates not just for the OS but also for Web browsers and many other third-party applications. Some netbook vendors, however, use customized Linux distros that may or may not offer similar comprehensive software-update tools. If you pick a Linux-based netbook, be sure that you understand how its software update tool works and what applications are included in any automatic update alerts. If some applications, such as a Web browser, aren't automatically updated, then configure the application itself to download and install its own updates whenever possible.

    Firewall and access-control software. Every current version of Windows XP includes Internet Connection Firewall (ICF) as a built-in component. ICF isn't as feature-rich as many third-party firewalls, but it serves its purpose: Protecting your computer against unauthorized outside access. The security of a Linux system against outside attacks can vary a great deal, depending mostly upon its default configuration. A properly locked-down Linux netbook might be fairly well protected, while an improperly configured system can be a lot more vulnerable. Once again, it is important to understand how a Linux netbook handles network security. Does it include a built-in firewall? Does the firewall offer a graphical interface or other tool for managing access, or does the vendor assume that users will not (or should not) change its default configuration? How does the firewall deal with wireless versus wired-network security? These are simple questions, and any competent netbook vendor or reseller should be able to answer them quickly and clearly. If they can't, then take your business to someone who can.

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