Tails, an encrypted and anonymous OS that bundles widely used open source privacy tools on a tiny device, is one of the most secure operating systems in the world. The Linux distribution rose to popularity when it was revealed Edward Snowden relied on Tails to secure his identity while sharing NSA secrets with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. In the past half decade, Tails has been embraced as an essential security suite by journalists, hackers, and IT workers.
Tails is an acronym for The Amnesic Incognito Live System. The OS runs Debian and is easy to run on Macs and PCs from a USB drive. Tails encrypts all local files, runs every internet connection through Tor and blocks all non-secure connections, and provides a suite of secure communication tools like the Tor browser, HTTPS Everywhere, OpenPGP, the Claws Mail client, I2P, an IP address overlay network, and a Windows 8 camouflage mode to deter over-the-shoulder snooping.
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Much of Tails' appeal is that the OS lives on a discreet and portable USB drive. It's also easy to install, and easy to launch and navigate from almost any Mac or PC with a USB slot. This guide will walk you through the steps necessary to download, install, and get started quickly with the world's most secure operating system.
Before getting started you will need:
- Two 4GB USB drives. One USB drive will be used to prepare and install Tails; the second USB drive will run the OS.
- A mobile device, like a phone or tablet, and an app that scans QR codes.
- Two to three hours of time. The installation process is relatively painless, but make sure you allocate enough time to read all the documentation, download software, and to prepare your machine.
Step 1: Learn
Tails is not a magic bullet, and it cannot protect against compromised hardware, compromised software, or user error. These steps may seem simple, but for Tails to provide proper protection it's essential you follow the most current documentation on the boum.org website. Installing Tails is fast and simple. Understanding how to use the security tools inside the operating system takes planning and preparation.
- Make sure you read the Tails About and Warning pages to understand what Tails does and does not do.
- Read the Documentation and FAQ. Make sure that your system meets the minimum requirements.
- Join the Tails XMPP chat, and communicate with developers and community members
- Server: conference.riseup.net
- Room: tails
Step 2: Download and authenticate
- Make sure your local machine is secure and virus-free.
- Download and install Firefox.
- Install the Tails browser addon. This plugin will be used to verify the OS image file download.
- Download Tails by navigating directly to https://tails.boum.org/install/index.en.html and selecting your operating system.
- Or download the Tails torrent file here: https://tails.boum.org/torrents/files/tails-i386-2.5.torrent.
- After you download, to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks you must verify Tails.
Step 4: Install
- Insert your first USB drive.
- Download the Universal USB Installer from the Installation page.
- Windows users will be guided through an installation wizard and prompted to install the Tails image on the USB drive.
- Important: use your mobile device to open the Instructions URL. In the next step you will need to restart your machine. This instruction list will walk you through getting back online fast.
- Restart your computer. During the bootup process, press the Boot Menu Key, usually F12 or esc, and select Boot Tails from your USB drive.
- Follow the instructions on the Welcome to Tails prompt.
- Next, insert your second USB drive.
- Under Applications click Tails Installer and follow the prompts to install Tails on your second USB drive.
- After the installation completes, shut down your computer.
- Remove your first USB drive, leaving the second USB drive attached.
- Repeat the startup process and run Tails.
Linux users will feel at home and comfortable with Tails. Tails 2.0 is based on the Debian kernel and runs GNOME 3.1. In addition to the built-in security features, Tails is packaged with a Linux open source productivity suite, including OpenOffice, GIMP, and Audacity.
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Remember: encryption, security, and privacy are only as good as the user. Make sure you follow security best practices, and keep in mind that offline and clearnet activity like password and account sharing can compromise your encrypted sessions. Follow software changelogs, and make sure you understand the fundamentals of encryption. Never engage in illegal or unethical activity.
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Dan Patterson has nothing to disclose. He does not hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.