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Our 8 Best Privacy Friendly Operating System Picks for Desktops (2021)

/ data privacy, operating systems

If you're not aware of the privacy nightmares of Windows 10 and Windows 11, then let us inform you: Windows is not all privacy friendly.

(Yes - the same thing goes for Apple's macOS.)

Just about any closed-source, proprietary operating system is more than likely not going to be beneficial for your privacy. If you're ready to make the switch, then avoidthehack highly encourages you to pick any operating system from this list.

Most operating systems listed here are Linux-based. Additionally, all operating systems here are both free and open source.

New/Transitioning user friendly operating systems

The operating systems in this section are geared for users who are either

  1. Not very keen on technical details
  2. Habitually used to a Windows or macOS environment , especially for long periods of time.
  3. Prefer a streamlined, out of the box, privacy-enhancing experience that just works with minimal set up

Or any combination of the above.

Linux Mint

official linux mint logo

A modern and easy-to-use operating system that works straight out of the box with full multimedia support and driver support for many different hardware specs.

Some of Linux Mint's highlighted features included:

  • Out-of-the-box Flatpak support for easy (and almost Windows-like) package handling
  • Designed for ease-of-use
  • Light system requirements - suitable for low-end or older systems
  • Different flavors of desktop
  • Full multimedia support
  • Removes potentially privacy-unfriendly features from Ubuntu Core (such as Snaps)

Linux Mint was forked from Ubuntu a number of years ago. (It's also available in a Debian environment.) While Ubuntu is already fairly easy-to-use, Linux Mint manages to be further simplified and lends itself more to privacy.

If you're migrating from Windows, then Mint's desktop environment is about as close as you can get to a Windows-like feel with very minimal set up and a not-so-steep learning curve.

Additionally, Linux Mint has been around since 2006 and is maintained by a dedicated community.

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POP_OS!

popos logo

POP_OS! is a linux distribution with a heavy emphasis on navigation and workflow optimization. It also takes privacy into account as the operating system aims to collect as little data (personal and device) as possible - even for system updates.

This distribution's user interface is highly optimized for workflow(s) and easy navigation. It focuses on being very new user-friendly.

Some of POP_OS!'s highlighted features include:

  • A number of pre-loaded tools for engineering, deep learning, and media production. Features libraries from Flatpak and Ubuntu.
  • Easy firmware management
  • Easy-to-use desktop environment - should be easy for just about any long-time Windows user to get the hang of it
  • Easy management of system updates
  • Workflow customization tools
  • Extensive tiling capabilities and "workspaces"

Another cool thing is that POP_OS! encrypts your installation by default, which enhances your privacy by securing the partition that POP_OS! operates within.

For example, if you were to dual boot with Windows - theoretically, if your other operating system's partition was unencrypted, Windows could "snoop" within the other partition.

Another example would be if a threat actor got physical access to your computer/hard drive - without an encrypted installation, it's usually only a matter of time before they can effectively pull data from it. An encrypted makes this hard, nearly next to impossible without the private key.

This also means you don't have to rely on a third-party tool to encrypt your POP_OS! installation.

POP_OS! is developed and maintained by System76, who has taken a serious privacy-friendly approach to consumer computer-building and OEM development.

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Average to advanced operating systems

These operating systems are for everybody, but might not necessarily cater to new and transitioning users. These typically have a steeper learning curve than beginner friendly operating systems. Ideally, these operating systems are for people who are:

  1. Decently familiar with the overall Linux environment
  2. More willing to customize/tweak/tinker
  3. Willing to learn and/or maximize the Linux environment as a whole

Or any other combination.

Fedora

fedora project logo

Fedora is a Linux distribution that is officially (and primarily) sponsored by RedHat.

Fedora aims to be more a platform than versus another distribution. It's important to note that Fedora is fairly beginner/transitioning user friendly, but it's overall suited for average users and/or those interested in programming and coding given its high focus on innovation and learning.

Fedora's strong commitment to free software and unrestricted innovation naturally lends itself very well to user privacy.

Some of Fedora's highlighted features include:

  • Native Flatpak support
  • A number of pre-loaded tools for coding on all levels
  • Five different editions: Workstation (personal computing), Server, CoreOS, IoT, and Silverblue
  • Many different front end environments, ex: GNOME or KDE

Fedora has a relatively short lifecycle, meaning that major updates are frequent. Additionally, Fedora is a distribution that quickly incorporates newer, leading edge technologies within its releases.

Fedora is developed and maintained by the Fedora Project, which is made of a community of developers, volunteers, and Red Hat employees.

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Debian

debian linux logo

Debian is a very Unix-like GNU/Linux distribution that is dubbed the "Universal operating system." It is a super stable and secure operating system - it's one of the oldest operating systems based on the Linux kernel.

Debian has many idealistic values and has an extremely strong commitment to free and open source software (FOSS). This commitment naturally lends itself to privacy as Debian and the community who works on it are very open (even by open source standards!) about everything to do with the operating system.

Some highlighted features of Debian include:

  • Runs extremely well on low-end and older hardware and systems
  • A huge list of available packages ready for installation and use - includes free and non-free software
  • Different kernels and desktop environments
  • Support for many different architectures

Debian is developed by a large all-volunteer and dedicated organization.

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Arch Linux

arch linux logo

Arch Linux is an independent Linux distribution that focuses on simplicity. Because of this focus and commitment to "Keeping It Simple," Arch Linux is a lightweight and extremely minimal Linux distribution.

The main focus is user-centric, as opposed to user-friendliness. This operating system defines simplicity as without unnecessary additions or modifications and aims to provide software that fits this definition. It aims to provide minimal downstream changes, choosing to remain as upstream as possible.

Arch Linux's position on simplicity and pragmatism lends itself exceedingly well to user privacy as the operating system itself is designed to provide as little interference as possible.

Some highlighted features of Arch Linux include:

  • AUR = Arch User Repository which is a huge repository
  • Well-written and easy-to-understand documentation
  • High level of customization that begins with the upstream
  • Updates are based on a rolling-release system
  • Ability to build a truly custom system - initial installation provides only a command-line environment

Arch Linux is maintained by the Arch community, which is highly dedicated to further improving and updating Arch.

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Niche and other advanced operating systems

The operating systems in this section have highly unique features.

Typically, usage of these operating systems requires some degree of "advanced" knowledge to use and implement. However, that doesn't at all mean that they're super hard to use - they'll just require some set up or learning on your behalf!

Qubes

qubes os logo

Qubes is an operating system that puts security first; it describes itself as a "reasonably secure operating system."

Qubes is unique in that it uses Xen-based virtualization. This virtualization enables strong isolation of different pieces of software - which includes operating systems. Multiple operating systems can run at the same time through Qubes - and they won't even "know" other operating systems exist.

Some of the highlighted features of Qubes include

  • Xen virtualization - well-implemented software isolation
  • Template system
  • Run multiple operating systems (including those found in this post!) at the same time
  • Disposables - qubes/compartments that self-destruct when shut down
  • U2F proxy for two-factor authentication (2FA)

The ultimate power of Qubes is its ability to firmly divide a single device into many different compartments that don't know about each other. New compartments can be created and discarded as needed.

Despite the sometimes unstable Xen virtualization, it's worth noting that Qubes can use most Linux-based software and drivers.

Qubes is maintained by a dedicated community of volunteer developers.

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TAILS

official tails logo

TAILS = The Amnestic Incognito Live System

TAILS is a live operating system that focuses on anonymity on top of user privacy. In short, unless you enable persistent storage, everything you do while using TAILS effectively disappears when you shut down the system.

TAILS can boot and run from a DVD, USB drive, or SD card on just about any relatively modern computer without leaving a trace. It accomplishes this by never writing anything to the hard disk and only running from the memory (RAM) of the computer.

TAILS also uses very strong cryptographic tools to encrypt the likes of your files, emails and messages. Additionally, all network connections are forced through the Tor network.

Some of the highlighted features of TAILS include:

  • All network connections are forced through Tor; if this doesn't happen, the connection is aborted
  • Many privacy and security conscious applications/tools bundled that are ready for immediate use
  • Highly transparent development
  • Tor (bundled with uBlock Origin) is the default browser
  • Persistent storage option - encrypted automatically

TAILS' "secure by design" is also "private by design," and can provide anonymity when conducting business through the operating system.

TAILS is developed and maintained by a nonprofit and an open community.

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Whonix

official tails logo

Whonix is a full operating system that runs inside your current operating system. It's available for Windows, macOS, and most Linux distributions (including those on this list.) Whonix comes pre-installed on Qubes.

Whonix focuses on privacy, security, and anonymity. It aims to realistically addresses common attack vectors.

Some highlighted features of Whonix include:

  • Based on Kicksecure - a security-hardened Linux distribution
  • Keystroke anonymization via kloak
  • Utilizes Tor for network connections
  • AppArmor - restricts the capabilities of commonly used applications
  • Advanced firewall

Like TAILS, Whonix forces all Internet connections through the Tor network. Those that can't be routed through the Tor network are disabled and blocked.

Whonix is developed by independent contributors of the Whonix Project.

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Final thoughts

Truthfully, just about any Linux-based installation that you pick - even if it's not from this list - will provide better privacy than continued use of Windows or macOS. Picking an operating system from this list helps ensure that you're getting a truly privacy friendly operating system.

However, some users might find themselves unable to switch for a variety of reasons. In this case, you should look into "shutting Windows up" by disabling as much telemetry and data collection within the operating system itself.

With all of that said, stay safe out there!

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