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Tails interview

With concerns over online privacy at its highest since the birth of the internet, we speak exclusively to the anonymous developers behind Tails...

The last year has been a rollercoaster ride in the IT and open source community, especially where security and privacy is concerned. The revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013 showed the world that governments of super nations around the world were spying on them more than they ever thought. The Heartbleed bug earlier this year revealed that even our trusted open source projects can let us down. In the midst of this has been Tails, the distro that takes privacy seriously. As our review shows, it also makes achieving a high level of privacy easy.

“Tails started five years ago,” the developers, an anonymous group of like-minded FOSS hackers, told us. “At that time some of us were already Tor enthusiasts and had been involved in free software communities for years. But we felt that something was missing to the panorama: a toolbox that would bring all the essential privacy enhancing technologies together and made them ready to use and accessible to a larger public. Some experiments had already been made in that direction, such as Incognito, which can be considered as the ancestor of Tails.”

Get ready to surf privately with Tails
Get ready to surf privately with Tails

Tails was built with two specific things in mind: sustainability and usability.
Sustainability refers to how this is a project that can be relied on by its users. The team goes on to explain the importance of usability: “We believe that the best security tool is of no use if people who really need it on the field cannot use it. Moreover, security tools must be hard to misuse, they should prevent you from doing critical mistakes, or ask you to make security decisions that you are not able to make.”

Tails has been around for a while as previously stated, however its notoriety was elevated after the Snowden revelations: “What really changed is the public awareness regarding those issues,” the team told us. “It is now hard to deny that internet security has to do with politics and not only with technology. The Snowden revelations also made it clear that online privacy is an issue for everyone, and not only for paranoid people. That point was still hard to make, even in the Linux world.”

With the release of 1.0 the team is looking ahead to the future. Coming very soon will be the 1.1 release based on Debian 7, the new stable. After that will be regular six-weekly updates: “We want to focus on limiting the impact of security flaws, isolating critical applications, and providing same-day security updates. Those changes will be almost invisible to the user, but they will make Tails more sustainable, and stronger from the inside.”

Through their efforts, Tails is bringing a safe online environment to those that need it. The team is working hard to make sure it stays that way – and this can only be done in open source.

Importance of privacy

Popular rhetoric dismissing online privacy’s importance usually centres on having ‘nothing to hide’.

“…The characteristics of digital communications as well as the way that the internet is built create a very interesting challenge,” The Tails devs tell us. “It is relatively easy to spy on people on the internet, but it is also relatively easy to defeat this spying by using the right techniques.

“If we look at the people who are using Tails and Tor, they come from very different backgrounds: journalists, dissident bloggers, privacy-concerned citizens, whistleblowers, business leaders, victims of intimate partner abuse, and even military and law enforcement agencies. [We] think that each one of them equally finds that online privacy is important but they all have their own reasons.”

Ready more about Tails in Linux User 140, on sale now. Look out for an extended version of the interview over the coming weeks.