Tails 1.0: A bootable Linux distro that protects your privacy

Surf anonymously without requiring a degree in computer security.

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Encryption

Tails addresses the problem of encryption by bundling a nice set of tools. Tails' default browser is Iceweasel, a rebranded version of Firefox that has been configured to use Tor, Adblock Plus and HTTPS Everywhere, an application that forces HTTPS protocol on all websites that support it. Tails also includes the KeePassX password manager and the excellent Linux Unified Key Setup (LUKS) utility for encrypting hard disks and USB drives.

You also get Nautilus Wipe, which securely deletes files; Open PGP, which signs and encrypts documents and emails; and Off-the-Record Messaging, which encrypts instant messaging sessions. The Claws Mail email client and Pidgin IM chat client both come with encryption already configured; Pidgin automatically creates a new fake user every time you start Tails.

Other applications

Tails includes a number of additional useful applications, including a virtual keyboard for dodging hardware keyloggers, and additional advertiser protection via Adblock Plus and NoScript. You also get a good set of productivity software: the OpenOffice productivity suite; graphics, audio and video software; and some nice accessibility tools, such as Orca and Dasher.

A significant omission is Adobe Flash, which Tails doesn't support because it is considered a giant privacy risk. So you won't be able to watch Flash videos on YouTube, though you can watch HTML5 movies. Unfortunately, this also means that other sites that are Flash-heavy will be unusable on Tails.

You can install new Linux applications (and Tails updates) if you run Tails from a USB drive or SD card by using the included Synaptic software manager.

You'll need the administrator password to install or remove software, but the operating system usually disables the password by default as a security measure, to reduce the chance of malware making changes on your system. So you'll have to enable it from the More Options screen when you first start up Tails.

Conclusions

Privacy on the Internet is very difficult to accomplish. The Tails advantage is putting it all together in a polished, easy-to-use package. The Tails About page lists a number of similar projects, though in my opinion, Tails is the best maintained and most dependable.

Your Internetworking will, by necessity, be restricted. Not by Tails -- as the main technical barrier Tails presents is the inability to surf Flash-heavy websites along with somewhat slower speeds. But you should get acceptable performance with ordinary Web surfing, and with streaming music and movies.

However, meaningful security takes work. Your own online behavior is important as well, because using Tails isn't proof against user foolishness.

Many users might have a bit of a learning curve with Tails, especially if they're not familiar with the software included with it. You'll have to take extra steps to set up good email and file encryption, and anyone you exchange emails or encrypted files with will also have to work with some special configurations.

Fortunately, the Tails documentation is quite good; you can read it online, and the local copy that comes with Tails is conveniently bookmarked in Iceweasel. And if you're concerned about privacy, it will be worth it.

Carla Schroder has been system and network administrating on mixed Linux, Windows, and Mac networks since 386 processors roamed the Earth, has written three splendid computer books (Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook, Book of Audacity), and hundreds of computer how-to articles for various online publications.

This article, Tails 1.0: A bootable Linux distro that protects your privacy, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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