Tails has been a curiosity to us for a while now, long before Snowden made it known to the mainstream. Cropping up every now and then on Distrowatch, we acknowledged that it existed and its list of features seemed to convey that the team knew what they were doing in constructing an ultra-secure and privacy-driven Linux distro. Now post-Snowden and Heartbleed, with the need for journalists and whistleblowers to have true internet privacy, we’ve come to see Tails as a necessity in the changing tech world.
The distro has undergone significant landmark developments recently, specifically the release of a version 1.0 and a professional logo to go with it. This move seems to signify that Tails is ready for use by professionals and the people that need to use it most. It’s also the final release to use Debian 6.0 (Squeeze) before the first in a line of Debian 7.0 (Wheezy) Tails distros begins later this year.
Live in anonymity
Numbers and logos are symbolic gestures though and the most important questions about Tails all revolve around how it works and how well it does its job. Like its name suggests, it is designed to work as a live distro and there are no tools to install it as the dedicated OS on your system. This is completely deliberate and is part of the way Tails operates.
Tails is designed to not leave a trace of itself being used. Instead of latching on to any available swap partitions on the system, it lives entirely in the RAM: this way no data can be mined from the swap partition or the hard drive in general, as it can be more difficult to erase your presence on this type of storage. Having the distro installed to the hard drive means the data is more easily recoverable, while having it all load from RAM makes it a simpler matter to wipe your records.
Tails can be cloned to an SD card or USB storage to make it easier and more practical to transport than a normal disc, although you can always use a tool like Unetbootin to get it onto this type of portable storage in the first place.
From the very moment you boot up Tails, it’s concerned about your security. Before properly connecting to the network or loading the desktop it asks you whether you need to edit some basic settings. This includes masking a MAC address, advanced tor setup if needed and also a Windows XP camouflage mode. As well as that, you can choose whether or not you want to set an admin password that by default is turned off for added security.
After these options are set, you’re thrown into a GNOME 2.0 desktop environment. Debian 6.0 still has GNOME 2.0 in the repos, so using the classic DE doesn’t require much extra work. Tails tells you what it’s doing, such as synchronising the clock so it can properly connect to the tor network.
As we’re using a distro such as Tails we’d like to give full disclosure: we regularly use virtual machines as part of our review process, especially when taking screenshots of live distros. Tails recognised that we were using it within a VM for part of the review and informed us of this along with the dangers of doing so.
All of the privacy options are very much upfront in all the places you’d need them to be. Notably on the task bar is the main tor manager, which allows you to quickly reroute your network with the New Identity option. There’s also a route map if you’re curious where your traffic is going. The browser IceWeasel has its own separate tor controls as well if you find that you need to customise the way it connects a little further.
Your daily apps
Along with these tools to access and stay private on the internet, Tails also includes a selection of default apps that allow you to work on it as well. The full OpenOffice suite is included, along with audio and video editing suites Audacity and Pitivi, image editor GIMP and a few other basic necessities.
One of the most unexpected aspects of Tails is how easy it is to use. Mainstream Linux perceptions aside, the way Tails is portrayed always made it seem like a chore to use due to all the security features. Thankfully Tails is anything but this, setting up all the security automatically and effectively while letting you get on with whatever task requires that level of secrecy.
For the less technical savvy people that may need to use Tails to avoid detection, it makes for the perfect tool.
As secure as it claims to be, Tails is also very easy to use. Handling all the security and privacy functions such as setting up tor, rerouting and wiping the RAM on shutdown automatically, all the while letting you know what it’s doing, Tails is everything it sets out to be.