The other day, I sat down at my laptop and, seeing a facebook page open, typed in a status that made total sense for me but little sense for Amanda. Unfortunately, Amanda had just been using my computer, and the facebook page to which the browser pointed was hers, not mine. It’s OK: She was eventually re-hired at the High School and the law suits will be settled in due time.
Anyway, having multiple users able to access your computer is preferable to allowing just any old Tom, Dick or Harry, such as your wife or children, use your box. I’m sure there’s ways to do this on Windows, but they are probably broken. Multiple users are an afterthought for Microsoft; Unix based systems such as Linux and Mac OX X were designed with multiple users as the primary purpose of the operating system. This ends up giving us more security (because, and I oversimplify, a “virus” (and I misuse that term) is a “user” … and I’m only slightly exaggearting) as well as the ability to switch quickly between users on a basic laptop or desktop computer.
There are two fundamentally different ways to do this in Linux, one of which can be implemented in two styles, for a total of three approaches. Linux in Exile explains the basic approach focusing on Fedora. If you don’t use Linux, click here. The first way is to simply create an account for whichever Tom-Dick-Harry’s are in your life. This person is only going to use your computer now and then, and basically to check their email or facebook account or whatever from a browser. So, make an account with the user name of that person’s first name, and the password being the same as the person’s name, and tell them that when they want to use your computer, just log on as “Harry” password “harry” or whatever. Remind them that Linux is case-sensitive.
With this method, “Harry” will enjoy persistent data between uses, so when he or she signs on things like the facebook logon will be maintained, if that option was chosen. Harry can put his or her data on the computer and have it there later providing that you did not delete “Harry” or wipe the hard drive or whatever.
The second method is similar, and this involves making an account for a “person” named “guest” (or something similar) with the password set to “guest” (or “password”). Tell people to log on to this account when they want to use your computer. Different people using this one account will, of course, be stepping all over each other with data and logons and stuff, but so what. If they want control over their lives they should get their own computer.
The third method uses the approach described by Linux in Exile (link above) on Fedora, and this involves a true “guest account” which is simply a password-free account with limited access that erases all data and stuff between sessions, always. This is the easiest and most secure of the three approaches, but will not be as convenient for your family members who occasionally use your computer as the first method would be.
To set up alternate user accounts in Ubuntu check out this page.
Recent incarnations of Ubuntu (and possibly other Linux distros) will not allow you to create an account with the the user name and the password the same. To override this, you do the obvious: Set the password to some high level security standard, then from a terminal, use the passwd command as root (sudo passwd) to change that password to whatever low-security password you like.