How To: Choose a Privacy-Focused Linux OS

Using a Linux-based operating system can help you avoid many of the privacy pitfalls of Windows and Mac OS X. Here’s a guide to some of the most popular Linux distributions available, with notes on how they compare regarding ease of use and privacy.

If you’ve never used Linux before, you may not understand that there is no single Linux operating system. Instead, there are hundreds of different operating systems that use the Linux kernel. (They also rely on a lot of other software from a project called GNU, which is why Linux-based systems are sometimes called GNU/Linux systems.) Each of these operating systems is referred to as a Linux distribution.

As of 2016, there are about a half-dozen Linux distributions that are widely used. Using a popular distribution can be good if you’re new to Linux because the popular systems tend to be better supported, and have more documentation available online. If you want to run a more obscure Linux distribution, you’ll often find yourself out of luck when searching for information about how to install a particular application in your environment, for example.

Here are the most popular Linux distributions today, with recommendations on how they measure up on privacy:

  • Ubuntu: a commercial distribution created by a company called Canonical. Ubuntu is very easy to install and use, and is probably the very most popular Linux distribution today. However, recent versions of the OS come with software built in that collects information about you. You can turn this stuff off if you want, but it makes Ubuntu an unattractive choice if you are concerned about privacy.
  • Debian: a community-based (noncommercial) OS that is one of the oldest Linux distributions around. It has lots of documentation and a strong focus on stability and transparency — which is good if you care about privacy. Debian is not as easy to use as Ubuntu, however, and not a great choice for people who aren’t technically inclined.
  • Linux Mint: this OS is based on Ubuntu, but it doesn’t ship with the Ubuntu apps that collect private information. It emphasizes ease-of-use and is a solid choice for new Linux users.
  • CentOS: a community-developed implementation of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, a commercial Linux distribution. CentOS is harder to use (in our humble opinion) than Ubuntu and Linux Mint, but still easy enough for beginners if you don’t find the latter options appealing. CentOS respects privacy quite well.
  • Fedora: this distribution is closely related to Red Hat Enterprise Linux (actually, Fedora is the community-supported system that Red Hat uses as a proving ground for testing software) but has no commercial goals itself. It emphasizes cutting-edge code. As such, it provides the latest privacy and other features, but it can also be less stable than Linux distributions that do not push out the newest apps frequently.
  • Tails OS: this is not actually among the most popular Linux distributions, but it merits mention here because it’s the best Linux system for privacy. It is designed from the ground up to protect users’ privacy and comes with features like Tor built in. The only downside is that, because Tails is not widely used, finding information and apps for it can be difficult sometimes.

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