Tails: The Privacy Operating System



Tails logo

Tails, short for The Amnesic Incognito Live System, is a Debian-based Linux distro designed for the sole purposes of online privacy and anonymity. Tails was first released in 2009 and has ever since been one of the most widely-used online privacy solutions.

One famous story that approves of Tails’ efficiency and wide use in the real world is Edward Snowden’s story. Snowden was a former NSA contractor who worked with a group of journalists to leak secret NSA documents discussing mass surveillance schemes; Snowden and his partners have revealed that they used Tails to anonymize and secure in-between communications. Furthermore, a slide of an NSA presentation was published in 2014 which clearly shows that NSA considers Tails a major impediment to its operations.

How Does Tails Work

Unlike Whonix, which is a sibling Linux distro with similar privacy purposes, Tails is built and meant to be live booted from removable devices such as USB thumbs and DVDs. Put differently, instead of being installed and ran from a computer’s hard drive, as in the case of the majority of OSs, Tails is typically installed and run from an external medium which can be plugged in/inserted and booted from on any computer.

Having Tails being installed and booted from an external medium means that the underlying computer will not change in any way, and thus will not have any digital footprint of Tails or the activities done with it. The underlying computer’s hard drive is typically not modified, nor even accessed; all that Tails needs from the computer are the RAM, which is emptied almost immediately after the computer is shut down and the external medium itself.

The term amnesic in Tail’s name means that as soon as the computer shuts down, all files and modifications that’d been done or created during a working session will not persist to the next session. In other words, Tails will roll back to its original state as a newly installed instance whenever the computer shuts down. This feature, however, can be changed if users want to keep files and modifications.

Above all, all incoming and outgoing traffic in Tails is forced to go through the Tor network, otherwise all traffic is blocked. This is the most important feature of Tails as it ensures that no data leakage happens whatsoever, and therefore effectively preserves users’ online privacy and anonymity.

Tails comes with a plethora of preinstalled programs and tools that greatly aid users in their privacy endeavor. We mention some of these applications:

  • Tor Browser, as probably guessed: Tor’s native web browser.
  • Pwgen: a strong random password generator.
  • VeraCrypt: a volume encryption tool and hider.
  • GNOME virtual keyboard: a security measure for potential keyloggers.
  • Electrum: a Bitcoin wallet for pseudonymous money transactions.
  • KeyPassXC: a tool for storing passwords securely.

Tails Among Other Anonymity-Focused Operating Systems

Of course, Tails is not the only privacy-focused Linux distro. We’ve already mentioned Whonix, which is a similar Linux distro with the main difference being that it’s typically installed in a virtual machine. What sets Tails apart, however, is that it requires very minimal tech knowledge to install and use. It only involves sticking a USB thumb and then browsing safely. Furthermore, the amnesic aspect is quite desirable and convenient for when you don’t want to leave any traces or evidences of your online activities on your computer.

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