This is an introduction to the Tails OS; a purpose-built, security-focused operating system which you can use to protect your work.
Common operating systems in use are typically Windows, Mac OS, or commercial smartphone systems like Android or iOS. With these operating systems, there are issues if you are doing work which requires maximum privacy and control over your data.
All these systems have been designed for convenience in mind, and often neglect key security and privacy features. They are geared towards mass market consumers. Windows 10 for example has a controversial feature which logs all of your keystrokes, and sends a record of everything you type to Microsoft.
Tails is a specialist operating system which is designed for maximum security and privacy. Running on your laptop or desktop computer, it is a secure alternative to Windows or Mac OS.
You don’t have to pay for Tails. It is completely free, and available to download on the Internet. You may have heard of the family of free operating systems called GNU/Linux. Tails is a GNU/Linux OS.
If you’re using Tails then you are using a version of Linux. Many Linux operating systems try to compete with Windows or Mac OS.
Tails is very different. Tails takes Linux and then radically alters the way everything works, from networking to file storage, for maximum privacy and security. It then adds a custom suite of encryption software with the safest, most secure pre-sets.
You may have heard that Linux is really difficult to use, but that’s simply a myth. While it might be a bit of a headache to get hold of Tails and get it up and running, once you do, everything is ready to go.
It has a modern OS design and a very intuitive interface. It actually makes everything a lot easier and also much safer.
The name ‘TAILS’ is actually an acronym. It stands for The Amnesic Incognito Live System.
What is a “live system”? Simply put, a live system is an operating system that runs off a DVD or a USB.
In the old days, operating systems like Windows or Mac used to come on install disks: for example floppy discs, or CDs. You would put them in your computer and install the operating system onto your hard drive. From then on, you could boot the OS on your hard drive, and you could put the install discs away, saving them for if something went wrong and you had to reinstall the OS again.
More recently, operating systems are distributed as downloads; you can download Windows or Mac OS and install it from the download. But it is still something you install, as it runs off your hard drive.
Live systems are different. They were invented as a way of trying out alternative operating systems without making any changes to your computer. With a live system, you have a removable media like a USB, and the entire operating system lives on that.
You can download a live system, write it onto the USB, insert it into the computer, and turn it on. Your computer doesn’t load your native operating system from your hard drive, or install from the USB. Instead, it simply boots from the live USB, into a new OS.
Because they run from a USB, live systems run entirely in your computer’s RAM (the short-term memory of your computer. They can do this without ever looking at your system’s internal hard drive.
In fact, with a live system, you could remove the hard drive from your laptop or device and you’d still be able to boot from the live USB. Likewise, because the operating system is on a USB, the computer is more or less interchangeable.
You can potentially boot your live system on any computer you like. All this gives live systems some very attractive properties for a secure operating system.
For one thing, they are very portable. With a traditional OS, you have to bring a whole computer around with you. With a live system, you would just need to carry around a USB, and use whatever computer is available to you.
It is also entirely transient. The computer is just a way of accessing your live system. It is as if is temporarily possessed by an OS that is not its own. When you are finished, your live systems makes no changes to the host machines and leaves no trace that it was ever used.
All of this leads up to another one of Tails properties: A for “Amnesic”. It means that Tails “forgets” everything every time you shut it down and turn your computer off.
With a traditional OS, each time you boot up your computer, it resumes where you were last. All of the filed you were working on are still there. All of the changes you made are still there.
But live systems aren’t like this. Each time you turn them on, they load the OS completely fresh, as if it was the first time. And you can make changes or work on files, but as soon as you shut the computer down, it forgets all of those.
The next time you boot, everything will be gone. It will be as if it was the first time you booted it all over again. It’s easy to see how this could be inconvenient, but Tails turn “amnesia’ into an extremely valuable feature. Why?
For one thing, if your computer is infected with malware, on a normal computer, that malware stays on your computer until you notice it’s there, and remove it. But with Tails, it is now much harder for that malware to stay on your computer from one session to the next.
Once you shut the computer down, the malware is dumped along with everything else. When you boot up again, it’s gone.
For another thing, perhaps you want to work on extra sensitive files, and you do not want to leave any traces. On a regular operating system, because of the problem of data remnance, you run the risk of leaving traces of those documents all over your computer.
But with Tails, everything is ephemeral. Running entirely in your computer’s RAM, it never touches your hard disk. When you’re finished working and you shut the computer down, everything in the RAM is dumped. No traces remain of the work you were doing. This makes Tails a much safer way to interact with documents that you’re not sure about.
Tails is even more “amnesic” than a normal live system would be. You see, when your live operating system is running, since it runs in RAM, it stores your encryption keys and the files you are working on in RAM.
As RAM is short term memory, once the power is turned off, any data stored in RAM degrades quite quickly and becomes unrecoverable. But there is still a grace period of a few minutes, during which it is not fully degraded, and could be recovered.
So with a normal live system such as, say Ubuntu, once it turns off, the data that was stored in RAM takes a few minutes to disappear properly. Those few minutes can make all the difference!
If you live in a country where you are worried about your home or office being raided to seize your computer or stop your investigative work, you need to be careful. In a raid situation, police can use aerosols to deliver liquid nitrogen directly onto your RAM components, freezing them to prevent the data in them degrading.
Once the computer is returned to a lab, they can then perform what is called a “cold boot” attack, recovering any data that was still in the frozen RAM at the time of the computer being shut down.
If you had an encrypted disk unlocked when you shut the computer off, then this could include your encryption keys. So it is possible for a well-resourced adversary, using this method, to gain access to your encrypted files.
To guard against this, Tails has a special “emergency amnesia” security feature: a shutdown sequence that forensically wipes your RAM each time, making sure to get rid of all traces of data before the computer turns off.
This security feature is even jerry-rigged to initiate in an emergency situation. So if you live somewhere that you have to worry about the police smashing down your door, you can just pull the Tails USB out of its port and this will trigger an emergency shutdown sequence.
So that’s why Tails is an “amnesic” live system. This all sounds great, you might say, but I don’t just do web browsing and email. How am I supposed to work on a long term project? It’s completely impractical if the OS forgets all of my files from one session to the next.
Tails addressed this. By default, the Tails system is fully amnesic, and will forget everything. But if you like, you have the option of enabling what’s called “Persistence”.
When you do this, Tails sets aside a space on the USB, and fully encrypts it using a passphrase of your choice. Then, when you boot up Tails, you have the option of either leaving this encrypted space locked and booting a completely amnesic session, or of unlocking the encrypted space.
When you unlock it, there will be a special folder called “Persistent”. Files that you place in “Persistent” will be remembered even after you shut down the computer. But files left anywhere else will still be erased on shutdown.
This allows you to use your Tails as you would a normal operating system, selectively retaining some files between sessions, and yet allowing everything else to be safely and cleanly forgotten.
Now we come to the “incognito” aspect of Tails. Tails is an incognito system because it uses Tor to protect your anonymity.
Typically, Tor browser on Mac OS or Windows has its own limitations. One of these is that, when you use Tor browser, only your actions within Tor browser are anonymous. Let’s look briefly at why that is.
When it starts up, Tor provides a special path to the Tor network, and only network traffic that is configured to use that path is protected. So once network traffic goes into that path, it is safely conveyed to the Tor network, and from there it is anonymised.
Tor browser is configured to send all of its traffic over this path. Traffic that does not use that path does not go over the Tor network, and is not anonymous. So if you use a different browser, such as Firefox or Chrome, or if you use a different application, such as Outlook, iTunes or any application that access the Internet, those applications are not configured to use the special path to the Tor network, and therefore do not go over Tor. They can freely connect to the Internet unprotected, and often do so without your knowledge or consent, revealing your identity and location to anyone to see.
So, your system is basically wide open. You might take extra care to make sure that you perform all of your activity you want to be anonymous inside the Tor Browser, but for example, it just takes one slip up for you to accidentally log in to your anonymous email account using the wrong browser, and then you have given away your real IP address, and your real identity and location.
Instead of just one application set up to use Tor, Tails incorporates Tor into the entire operating system. Tor is an intrinsic part of how Tails does networking. Not just Tor browser, but all of the applications that come built-in to Tails, such as Tails’ email client, Thunderbird, and Tails chat client, Pidgin.
And not only that, Tails also blocks all other network traffic. It uses a firewall to prevent any other application from connecting to the open internet. Only Tor traffic can connect. So even if you were running an application that was not configured to use Tor, even if it tried to sneakily connect to the open Internet, Tails would block it, preventing the data from escaping onto the Internet and revealing your location and identity.
Tails has basically made using Tor, if not accident-proof, then accident-resistant. It is much harder to inadvertently compromise your anonymity while using Tails, allowing you to use the Internet anonymously with more confidence and ease.
Unlike Windows or Mac OS where lots of the most essential encryption software does not come built-in to the machine and has to be downloaded and installed, Tails comes loaded up with built-in encryption software.
All of the encryption features that are add-ons on other systems are standard features on the Tails OS. It’s therefore really easy, for example, to encrypt an external hard drive, or to securely erase a file, or to send an encrypted email. Once you have Tails, you can get started doing all of these things right away.
To download Tails OS, click here.
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