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Would We Need Antivirus For Desktop Linux?

The recent news about Symantec offering an antivirus suite for Mac OS X Leopard made me wonder: If Linux becomes at least as popular on the desktop as the Mac, would an antivirus solution be marketed for Linux, too?

The recent news about Symantec offering an antivirus suite for Mac OS X Leopard made me wonder: If Linux becomes at least as popular on the desktop as the Mac, would an antivirus solution be marketed for Linux, too?

There's a certain irony in the fact that most of what Symantec's Norton Antivirus 11 for Mac guards against is actually viruses aimed at PCs. The idea is that by trapping them on the Mac, you prevent them from being spread inadvertently (via e-mail attachments and the like) to other machines. In the same vein, there already do exist Linux antivirus solutions, designed mainly to block passing along viruses intended for Windows users (again, such as through a mail gateway).

So what about viruses written specifically to target Linux?  Yes, such beasts do indeed exist. That said, the nature of an open-source platform makes it that much easier (and faster) to close over the holes that they exploit. This is as it should be, and right now a big part of the appeal of running Linux on the desktop is that you're not a broad target for malware.

What I'm worried about is what might happen if Linux were to achieve a decently large slice of the desktop pie -- large enough that people start trusting their Linux boxes with sensitive stuff like bank account data or credit-card numbers. If at that point someone found and exploited a Linux vulnerability on a broad scale, enough to rip off a bunch of people and run before the hole was closed over, even if the scope of the damage were relatively limited it might be enough to create a kind of moral panic about the security of Linux in the minds of nontechnical users. To wit:

"See? Linux isn't entirely secure, either! Here, buy my brand spanking new anti-malware solution for the low, low price of $50 a year. Per machine. Per user."

"But it's not open source!"

"Of course not!  Then the malware authors will know how it works, you fool!"

And so on. Now, I'm not saying I think this scenario justifies a moral panic, mind you. It's just that it's too easy to hype up a small imagined threat vs. a much larger tangible one.

Plus, many people will simply not care about the merits of open source vs. closed source, etc., if they have just had their bank account mulcted. They'll want something proactive that pops up little "I'm protecting you!" notices on their desktop, something that makes them feel safe. I suspect we'll see people step in to cater to such a need even if it's almost entirely unwarranted.

No, I don't like the idea of people trusting themselves to Linux, only to get burned. I hope it never comes to that. But I also don't like the idea of people being hyped to spend money on security that they simply might not need, or that they could better achieve with a little care and foresight.

That said, am I wrong?  Would it simply make sense to have some kind of proactive defense against malware when/if Linux becomes a more worthy target?