Operating System Security Issues

By Josh Wepman

Hackers can turn compromised computers bots to launch larger-scale attacks.
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Operating systems are the core of the computing environment--providing users a common and easy-to-use interface to the hardware and software installed on a computer. Exploits in operating system code wreak havoc on computers, giving hackers the ability to steal data and to damage both hardware and software. Operating system security is crucial because it protects the central control system of a computer.

Software Vulnerabilities

Operating systems are composed of hundreds of thousands of lines of code. Because humans program and debug each operating system, hundreds of vulnerabilities are introduced into the code at development time. These weaknesses, ranging from simple unwanted behavior or error messages to full-scale system crashes and data corruption, can have catastrophic consequences on data management and productivity. Operating system manufacturers, such as Microsoft and Apple, frequently publish updates to the code, called patches, to fix these vulnerabilities and to ensure system stability.


Most operating systems have a login feature, or a method of separating users' files and access to a computer. Passwords and user names, which are used in every major operating system, provide controlled access to separate domains on a system (both on the hard disk and in the operating system memory itself). Security experts do not consider passwords to be a secure method of authentication because most users' passwords are easily guessed or written down and stored in an insecure place. Authentication spoofing (impersonating another authorized user) is a major security threat for operating systems as it allows the attacker to assume a different digital identity to steal data or launch further attacks.


Malware, short for malicious software, hijacks an operating system to perform some sort of task for an attacker. Viruses, trojans and spyware are the most common form of malware, and each work to undermine operating system security controls. Hackers frequently turn compromised computers into "bots" or "zombies," forcing them to join networks of thousands of other systems to perform larger-scale attacks on businesses or governments. Malware usually requires some sort of user action--downloading and running an infected file, or plugging in a compromised USB key--to break into an operating system.

Physical Security

Physical security is the most important method of ensuring operating system security. Since operating system code and configuration files are installed on a system's hard drive, an attacker with physical access to the system can easily modify, delete or steal critical files on a system. For this reason, most commercial servers are stored in locked rooms and monitored by armed security guards.