13 best privacy-focused alternatives to common Linux software

Ruheni Mathenge Last updated: June 24, 2022
Disclosure

Linux distros help improve the security of any digital environment. This article tells you about 13 privacy-focused Linux distros that you can try right away.

Sneak peek at privacy-focused Linux alternatives

Linux is probably the only operating system featuring a niche devoted to privacy and security. The Linux distros in this category are not the most popular, but they are instrumental. Most of them are rich in dedicated security apps and tools. In most cases, you will find it very easy to browse via Tor – an anonymous browsing facility. Hence, every privacy-aware user should try at least one of them once in their life to experience online privacy.

Amidst the rising cybersecurity incidents, Linux has become the top choice for privacy-freaks. Today, numerous Linux distributions exist as alternatives to the popular desktop, mobile, and other devices’ operating systems, facilitating privacy-focused online activities.

But, while Linux is the best operating system, if you need to combine security and functionality, one has to ask: are all Linux distros equally good for privacy and security?

If you compare them to macOS and Windows, the answer is a resounding “yes.” But is there a better answer?

This article lists thirteen Linux distributions and tools primarily focused on privacy. Could one of these systems become the next Ubuntu, Android, or Fedora? Time will tell, but if privacy is a priority for you and you’re not afraid to dump Microsoft and Apple systems, here are the best privacy-focused Linux alternatives to change your life.

Top Linux distros for security online – Quick list

If you’re in a rush, here’s our quick list of the 13 best Linux distros for privacy-focused users.

  1. Live Kodachi. A Debian-based live distro that comes with several VPNs included and other traffic tools.
  2. Qubes OS. It’s based on Fedora, and it’s a Xen virtual machine.
  3. Tails. Among the most popular entries in our list, it’s also a live distro that makes sure that nothing of your activities stays recorded once you’re finished with every session.
  4. Kali Linux. The distro, formerly known as BackTrack, is probably the world’s most used penetration testing-oriented operating system.
  5. BlackArch. Another penetration testing suite is similar to Kali but based on Arch Linux.
  6. Parrot OS. Don’t let the funny name prevent you from taking this one seriously. It’s a robust collection of forensic tools.
  7. Septor. A good distro for the KDE fans features a wholly free software environment for security.
  8. Whonix. Its emphasis on virtual computing allows you to work in very well delimited environments so nothing can get out of control.
  9. Alpine Linux. It’s meant to be a general-use distro but includes many exciting privacy features.
  10. Discreete Linux. Discreet features an innovative data management strategy to keep your encryption keys safe.
  11. Heads OS. A lightweight and efficient mini distro that keeps itself to free software alone.
  12. Subgraph OS. It’s Gnome and Debian-based, so it’s a friendly distro for newbies, focused on counterattacking intruders.
  13. Iperdia OS. Almost a general-purpose distro that routes everything you do through I2P software,

A look back at how Linux evolved

Security and stability enthusiasts have always preferred one operating system over others for decades — BSD. However, the OS remains an arcane toy for the highest-level geeks only because it remains a complex tool to master. Though, many hoped that a good desktop BSD version would popularize the system and reach a broader audience (like Linux did). But while many desktop BSD distros have been released throughout the last couple of decades, the lack of drivers and other types of standard software has been its bane. So BSD remains a server operating system. Unrivaled, but otherwise useless.

Since even the most paranoid privacy and security enthusiasts need a computer with desktop functionality, the next step is using the Linux distros.

Red Hat was probably the first distro that turned Linux into a commercial force. But it wasn’t until Ubuntu popped up that Linux became accessible to a broader audience of people who don’t want to compile the kernel whenever they need a new driver.

Then Google turned Linux into Android, making the Linux kernel the most widely used operating system in the world.

Best privacy-focused Linux alternatives – The detailed list

1. Linux Kodachi

Kodachi is a Debian-based Linux distribution with an XFCE environment (a lightweight window manager of Xubuntu fame).

You can run Kodachi from a LiveDVD or liveUSB. The default bundle includes several VPNs and Tor browsing so that you can feel safe from the first moment.

DNSCrypt comes with the distro so that you can mask your TCP/IP protocol. These masks allow you to filter all your online activities through privacy.

Kodachi allows you to encrypt your folders, emails, and instant messages without additional software because all the necessary cryptographic software is already included.

A Kodachi live session leaves no traces in a host system. The system itself cleans out any remaining signs of activity, so even a deep forensic analysis won’t be able to know that it ran on a host system. Yes, we know, this specific feature looks more like a hacker advantage, but Linux is like that almost always.

2. Qubes OS

Qubes OS is Fedora-based and runs a Xen-based virtual machine so that you can run every element as an isolated process.

The system is highly compartmentalized. That is good for server-side network stacks, firewalls, and security-oriented desktop activities. Moreover, Whonix is present throughout the distro, so Tor is available for every user.

With Qubes OS, it’s easier to enhance your safety with Split GPGs –the users can save their private keys safely.

Encryption is another priority here, enhanced with device isolation and U2F proxies. This arcane feature makes it an instant hit with the most privacy-aware geeks.

3. Tails

Tails is also a live distro that you can boot from microSD cards, USB sticks, hard drives, and other storage media. Its use case is maintaining and expanding a user’s private domain.

Have you ever imagined how it would be to have an OS that automatically deletes every stored data and file each time you reboot? Yes, you can still keep personal data in your system, but it must go in an encrypted folder or get wiped. This feature is becoming standard in privacy-aware servers, so it’s something to notice.

Tails has embraced Tor’s philosophy wholeheartedly through the particular kind of constant data wiping that enables fool-proof privacy computing at every step.

You can use Tails as an immutable OS with added encryption to keep your data safe. The community is very active and helpful, almost evangelical. The support and documentation are extensive too.

4. Kali Linux

Whatever Linux distribution you prefer for your everyday activities, the chances are that Kali is your second favorite distro.

Kali is the current version of BackTrack; the premier live Linux distro for advanced security testing and engineering

It’s based on Debian and comes preloaded with a wide variety of penetration testing tools and applications

One of Kali’s best features is that it’s easy to use out-of-the-box. So you don’t need to be a Linux or security expert to boot your Kali USB stick and start messing around with penetration tests.

Since Kali and its previous incarnations have been around for decades, it has a populous community. Also, it’s under constant development and updating, and many enthusiastic contributors keep writing down the documentation that any newbie could need.

5. BlackArch

BlackArch is Kali’s competition, as it’s a live Linux distro aimed at security testing.

The distro is based on Arch Linux, and it comes with about three thousand security tools, which is a lot to pack in such a small container.

XFCE provides a graphical desktop environment and makes navigation intuitive for beginners. And since the desktop comprises pre-configured window managers, it’s a joy to use.

Black Arch comes in two flavors: Full and Slim, to suit your needs.

The community makes it easy to troubleshoot any issues that can arise.

6. Parrot OS

No list of security-oriented Linux distros is complete without Parrot OS. This distro is Debian-based and meant to facilitate cybersecurity.

Parrot OS’ software bundle includes tools for forensic analysis and reverse engineering. The commitment to security shows in the encryption-centric app repository. All the activities in Parrot are sandbox and virtualized.

Parrot is one of the most popular and trusted open-source tools for defense management.

Last but not least, end-users have their security enhanced with Anonsurf, I2P, Tor, and other utilities.

7. Septor

Septor is a Debian-based distro but with KDE in the window management.

It’s a complete software ecosystem built on an integrated vision of security. So it puts together a nice collection of open-source software.

The applications in Septor cater to Tor and other encrypted web services. It takes advantage of Tor’s versatility by integrating the Tor Browser and OnionShare, QuiteRSS, HexChat, and Thunderbird.

Septor resembles Tails in some ways, but the desktop interface and the installation media are different.

8. Whonix

Whonix is Debian-based. Its adoption of Kicksecure Security enables you to run your system within several virtual computers so that a secure environment always limits your work.

Whonix is all about the “torification” of the system so that users can hide their identity, credentials, and sensitive data from any third parties.

Like most tools in our list, Whonix is a live distro that can boot from a USB stick. That makes it easy for anybody to try it and decide if they like what they see before committing to some HDD real estate.

9. Alpine Linux

It is the only distro on our list that’s supposed to be general-purpose. But it emphasizes anonymous web surface and advanced malware protection.

Alpine Linus is resource-efficient because it’s based on BusyBox and musc libc.

However, that apparent lightness should not distract you from noticing its outstanding package manager, APK, and shell scripting tools.

You can choose between Gnome and XFCE to run your desktop. And it comes with Docker letting you virtualize your machine easily.

10. Discreete Linux

If keeping data safe is your priority, look no further; Discreete Linux is here to save the day.

This distro keeps itself offline as it works. This strategy keeps the data and the crypto keys separate, so they’re never within reach of a non-trusted network.

It’s a 100% live system, not just on a trial basis. It’s fully functional from a USB device.

11. Heads OS

Heads OS is a mini-distro that privileges the user’s freedom and community. It strictly keeps free software, and it’s pretty easy to manage.

It comes with Tor, so you can always surf the web in anonymous mode. And it routes all of your traffic through Tor by default. However, if you need to speed things up, you can always make that stop.

12. Subgraph OS

The last on this list of privacy-focused Linux alternatives is Subgraph OS. It is like Tails in that it’s Debian-based and aims to defend you against external surveillance and interference by third parties, especially those who know what they’re doing.

The interface is Gnome, which makes it very user-friendly. Thus this distro feels very welcoming to new users.

The distro’s security strategy is all about intelligent access control to prevent attacks.

13. IprediaOS

It is a good Linux distribution for browsing the web, writing and reading emails, chatting, and sharing files anonymously. All the traffic goes through I2P.

A rare feature in security-oriented Linux systems is the BitTorrent support Ipredia features.

It’s a fast and efficient operating system that even works well in relatively older hardware.

What is a Linux distro?

The name Linux refers to a single software program, the Linux kernel (or vmlinuz), which is the heart of any Android or Linux operating system.

However, vmlinuz itself is not very useful. Suppose you want it to shine and do valuable things for you. In that case, it needs a host of other programs that make the magic happen: file managers, memory managers, word processors, task managers, web browsers, and all those things you already know and many more elements that work behind the scenes without your knowledge.

So the whole set of software that comprises a complete system that you can use to do useful things by harnessing the power of the vmlinuz kernel is what is known as a Linux distribution (or distro).

Difference between Linux distro and app

As explained, a Linux distro is the complete software system catering to your intended activities. It differs from a Linux app in many ways. Each distro uses a different window manager, graphical environment, file manager, email reader, etc. Perhaps the most crucial difference is in the package management approach, which makes distros such as Debian and Red Hat more different.

So is a Linux distro a Linux app? No. It’s a bunch of apps that come together to have a fully working operating system.

The best example is in your pocket if you are an Android user: your phone’s operating system is Android, a glorified Linux distro produced by Google for mobile devices. Then think about your phone’s Chrome browser or your WhatsApp. Those are apps. They are Android apps (therefore, Linux apps), but they are not distros as they are suitable for one thing only. They can’t work as a complete operating system on their own.

Final thoughts

We hope this article triggered your curiosity to download and try at least one of these privacy-focused Linux alternatives for popular distros on our list.

Every distro listed above is a live operating system. That means that you don’t need to install anything on your computer. All you need to do is download the distro’s disc image, then use a utility to install it into a USB stick, and that’s it! You can boot your computer from the USB stick and have a whole new operating system in your hands at no cost whatsoever!

We have always found it pretty exciting to use live USBs to try new Linux distros. Sometimes we’ve seen some real jewels.

If you think you shouldn’t try one of these because you’re not expert enough, or you’ve never used a Linux system before, then let us tell you that several distros on the list are very user-friendly. Also, if your phone is Android, you’ve been using Linux for much longer than you thought.

While many of the items we listed used to be arcane and geeky toys, the tide has turned. Many of them have become very user-friendly systems that anybody can start using immediately. And the availability of privacy and security software they feature will also give you good reasons to try your hand at protecting your privacy and security.

Remember: there is a method to this madness. All this software aims to provide you with new tools to keep you safe. And that is the game’s name, so why not learn to play with a brand new ball?

Share this article

About the Author

Tech researcher and writer with a passion for cybersecurity. Alex is a strong advocate of digital freedom and online privacy.

More from Ruheni

Comments

No comments.