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I am thinking of switching to Ubuntu as a way of making web browsing more secure. So, suppose I will go the easy route and run Ubuntu as an app inside Windows and then run Firefox inside of that. What will this do to the security given the current threat environment? E.g. do most online threats nowadays target the browser and flash (which presumably would be safely sandboxed inside easy to wipe Ubuntu environment) or do they target the Windows TCP-IP stack where Ubuntu would give no protection? Well, most likely the above question does not come near to covering all the security implications of this setup :-), so please do discuss whatever other issues that may be relevant here.

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Majority of things attacking your browser target problems with browser or API of underlying OS, for example image drawing functions. Also, as a security model, there is two way security: from host to virtual machine and from virtual machine to host.

Virtual machine to host

Virtual machine is sandbox for guest operating system. Breaking it is very difficult, but not impossible. For casual use, you don't have to care about that at all.

If your virtual machine is contamined by some malware/virus, easiest path to host machine is through network. Usually host machine trusts traffic coming from virtual machine, and for example Windows virus using remotely exploitable (but blockable by firewall) hole, it have much better chances from virtual machine.

From host to virtual machine

Normal viruses do not try to infect virtual machines, but it's possible, as host operating system (in your case Windows) can do whatever it wants to virtual machines and to virtual machine disks.

Security in your case

As already said, majority of threats during normal web browsing target to your browser. That include also some operating system functions, like drawing, image rendering, filesystem handling and so on. In that sense Ubuntu (and Firefox) are much safer than Windows (and Internet Explorer). This is not necessarily because it's better (more secure), but there is much lesser number of viruses for Linux, as it's very marginal operating system.

When connecting to your virtual machine, it is possible to exploit bug in Windows TCP/IP stack, but that's highly unlikely. Also, there isn't many (known) bugs in Windows 7 networking.

Using virtual machine for web browsing is good idea, because then you can take advantage of snapshots for example: if something goes wrong (and you know why), you can just restore previous snapshot. For example native Windows Recovery is not good enough for that, because many viruses infect old versions too, as those are accessible inside operating system.

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The virtual machine acts as a sandbox so no threats can damage the host machine. Even more secure is your setup, as Ubuntu performs much better than Windows in terms of security.

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This is not true. Windows performs good for security issues. The same counts for Ubuntu. The main difference between both is, that there are less viruses for linux systems. The reasons for this are the ones Olli stated in his answer. If you update your windows it is pretty hack safe. In fact most attackers won't attack windows but programs running on windows read this post:… You may hate MS or not, but they perform well on getting a safe operating system. Especially after that much attention from hackers. – Darokthar Feb 23 '11 at 15:53
Well, of course if you keep Windows updated and your antivirus running and also updated you shouldn't have problems. I didn't say Windows was bad, I just said that Ubuntu is better refering to the fact that you don't need an antivirus and you normally install software from respectable sources like the official repos, root access is more isolated than windows "admin" mode, etc – bruno077 Feb 23 '11 at 18:34
Unfortunately your premise is incorrect. It 'should' act as a sandbox, but all too often doesn't protect as it should. – Rory Alsop Feb 23 '11 at 20:11
@Darokthar - in saying that, running anything in a VM should offer some protection, so it wouldn't necessarily matter whether it was windows or linux or something else inside the VM. The separation is useful, as is the ability to tear down the VM and recreate a new one next time - removing persistent issues. – Rory Alsop Feb 23 '11 at 20:12

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