Tails : a Linux Distribution For Protecting Your Privacy

If you are an Apple fan, you probably know that there is an app for everything. If you are more of a Linux fan, you know that there is a distribution for (almost) everything. Anyways, if you are concerned about your privacy on the Internet or about encryption, Tails is the Linux distro for you. This distribution is directed towards the secret agent as well as the simple paranoid user. To put it simply, Tails, used as a live-CD or live-USB, will establish a temporary session that allows the user to surf the web anonymously and encrypt personal files.


First thing with Tails – it boots fast. Secondly, it is very well designed. Based on a Debian architecture, Tails proposes eleven languages for the system.


As a bonus, there is a camouflage option that makes the Gnome desktop look like Windows XP. No one will suspect what you are doing. To boot with the camouflage option, at the language selection screen, instead of pressing Enter at your selection, press Tab and then add “winxp” to the code that appeared. Here is the result:



Once your system has booted, you arrive at the simple Gnome desktop and Tor automatically launches itself.


The first evident use of Tails is surfing the web. For that, you are provided with a Vidalia as a GUI for Tor and Iceweasel as a web browser. The latter comes with a plethora of practical add-ons like HTTPS-Everywhere, Adblock Plus, or NoScript. All of these add-ons give you the necessary protection: encryption, protection from tracking cookies, script prevention, etc. Tails guarantees a maximum of privacy possible on the Internet.


As an extra, Tails also comes with aircrack-ng, a non graphical tool for checking the security of your network. If the Wi-Fi you are using is not protected enough, your packets could be sniffed by an intruder. That is why aircrack can try to break into your network as if you were the intruder, and reveal vulnerabilities.


On the other hand, a Tails session can be used as a “safe” environment to work on “sensitive” documents. You are provided with all the necessary software to view and edit files. OpenOffice, Audacity, Gimp, and more are included in the distribution. You will be able to edit Office files, watch videos, record sounds, and more, with the assurance of leaving no trace on the physical computer. Also, in the spirit of Debian, the default file manager to navigate among your folders is Nautilus.


Another usage of Tails would be for secure communications. If you know the chat client Pidgin, you will be glad to know that it comes by default with the plugin OTR, for “Off The Record”, that will encrypt your messages.



And if you are a fan of email clients, Thunderbird is also included with the extension Enigmail for the PGP encryption of your emails.

Finally, Tails can be used for the encryption of physical drives and folders. You can use the program TrueCrypt for a LUKS encryption.



On the same level, Tails comes with two programs in the system-tray: a copy-paste manager and a virtual keyboard. The latter is useful against key-loggers. In the case that the computer on which you are currently working physically records what you are typing, the virtual keyboard will assure you security.


The copy-paste manager, while useful, is also a security vulnerability by itself. I don’t know about you but I sometimes forget to erase it at the end of my session, and you never know what it might contain. Email addresses, URLs, passwords, any information that you copied into the clipboard can be accessed. Against that, the copy-paste manager in Tails propose a funny option: the encryption of your clipboard.


Also, Nautilus has been installed with the extensions for securely wiping files. In others terms, you can delete and be sure that no one will recover. For that: a simple right-click on a file, and then “Wipe” will do the job. The file will be erased and the space written over with random data in order to make any recuperation impossible. However, if you normally deleted a file and forgot to wipe it, there is also an extension for that. A right-click on a blank space will make the option “Wipe available disk space” appear. By using that command, all the files that were on a USB drive, for example, will be totally eradicated, even if normally suppressed before.

Finally, there is a last attack against which Tails is prepared: the cold-boot attack. When you shut down your PC, the RAM will take several minutes to completely erase its content. A cold-boot attack is when a hacker makes use of the delay to recover all the content of the RAM, which means practically everything you’ve done during your session. Even if the cold-boot attack is not regularly used, it is still a threat that users have to cope with. The good thing is, Tails automatically wipes and fills the RAM with random data at the end of your session.


Although Tails is still in its early version (0.10.1), it presents a couple of very well thought-out abilities. Its goal is very clearly established and developers are actively working towards it. I appreciated even more the invitations to give feedback and to report bugs. It is true that there are still a couple of areas that can be enhanced. There are still a couple of bugs in the winxp camouflage mode, and the mac changer program is currently not working, according to the wiki. But, as I said, Tails seems very promising and I can hardly find any other areas to improve.

And you? Have you tested Tails or something similar? Can you think of any weaknesses or fields that have not been treated? Are you using some other methods to protect your privacy? Please let us know in the comments.


Image credit: Privacy by BigStockPhoto


Adrien is a young but passionate Linux aficionado. Command line, encryption, obscure distributions... you name it, he tried it. Always improving his system, he encountered multiple tricks and hacks and is ready to share them. Best things in the world? Math, computers and peanut butter!

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