Tails 1.0: A bootable Linux distro that protects your privacy

Surf anonymously without requiring a degree in computer security.

These days, it seems as though anyone who uses the Internet is a tasty morsel for insatiable data thieves. Marketers, governments, criminals and random snoops won't be satisfied until they can snarf whatever information they want about us at any time.

If you want to dodge ad trackers, have sensitive sources to protect or you just want to conduct your normal online activities without being spied on, then The Amnesiac Incognito Live System (better known as Tails) could help.

Tails, which just came out in its 1.0 version, is a live 32-bit Debian Linux-based operating system that runs from a USB flash drive, CD/DVD or SD card. (A live system is a complete, bootable OS on removable media.)

Tails' default desktop is the popular GNOME Linux desktop.

Tails runs like any other live Linux OS -- with an added safety feature: It erases your session from your computer's memory at shutdown so there are no leftover traces. It runs on most Windows, Linux and Mac computers, with some exceptions (see below).

Sometimes a 1.0 software release is a major milestone. In this case, though, there are no dramatic changes from previous releases; Tails development has been steady -- it has been releasing new (and stable) versions every 12 weeks.

[Want more more tips on how to keep your info secure? Check out "The paranoid's survival guide, part 1: How to protect your personal data."]

System requirements

Tails is just under a gigabyte in size, needs at least 1GB RAM and requires a computer with an x86 processor. That describes pretty much any mainstream PC with an Intel or AMD CPU. You need only download and copy it to a USB drive, CD/DVD or SD card.

A CD/DVD is the most secure medium to use because it is read-only; on the other hand, a USB drive or SD card is a lot faster, and you can set up an encrypted persistent storage volume to save settings and documents. Be sure to verify your download with the signing key; just follow the instructions on the download page.

If you want to try Tails out, though, you need to be aware of some possible hurdles.

To start with, Windows 8.x presents special problems for booting removable media. To meet Microsoft's Windows 8 certification requirement, hardware vendors must ship Windows 8 PCs with Secure Boot enabled. This effectively locks out all other operating systems and any boot media not approved by the vendor. Every computer vendor handles this differently, with different types of BIOS and different settings, so you'll have to consult your computer's documentation to see how to do it on your computer -- or if you even can.

In addition, it takes a bit of fiddling to start Tails on a Mac system. The website's Known Issues page has links to instructions for running Tails on Macs. It also lists some specific systems and USB drives that don't work with Tails. And, of course, it doesn't make much sense to run Tails on a virtual machine because the host system will give you away.

(If you can't get Tails to boot on your Windows or Mac PC, many of the security applications included in Tails can be installed individually on Windows and OS X systems.)

Once you've got it going, you'll find that Tails' default desktop is the popular GNOME Linux desktop. If you (or your users) aren't comfortable with GNOME, Tails can masquerade as the more familiar Windows XP.

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