Use the Internet without leaving a trace with Tails 1.5

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Heider Almeida, 123RF

Heider Almeida, 123RF

Safety First

Those wanting to surf the Internet incognito need a lot of expertise and time to secure their system. Tails saves you much of this work and lets you be online securely and anonymously.

Securing their Internet access proves to be an insurmountable obstacle for many users. In fact, you need to put in a considerable amount of effort to make online services of various kinds immune to eavesdroppers and data leeches. However, Tails [1] is a live distribution that saves you the time-consuming process of hardening your system. Tails is also ideally suited for on the go; it doesn't affect the host being used and therefore doesn't leave any traces behind on local mass storage.

You will find the current version of Tails (1.5) as a 960MB ISO image together with a signature file on the distribution's project page [2]. However, you don't need the signature to use Tails; you can determine from the checksums whether the integrity of the ISO image has been affected [3]. The image is suitable for both 32- and 64-bit computers. After downloading Tails, either burn the image to a DVD or create a bootable USB flash drive. Alternatively, you can use an SD memory card as a medium for the Debian derivative. The developers of Tails provide a detailed manual for generating the starting medium [4].

Tails is strikingly different from the start. After the login screen appears with the question More Options? , you can answer by clicking Yes and then Forward . The distribution then offers you an option window. Here you can both create an authentication for the administrator and also modify the visual appearance of the desktop – even in such a way that makes it look like a Windows 8 user interface from a distance. Additionally, you can define a modified MAC address in this window so that the computer doesn't stand out to administrators either in passing or on the network. Once you have chosen the desired settings, you can get to the desktop by clicking the Log in button (Figure 1).

Figure 1: In stealth mode, Tails mimics the appearance of a Windows 8 desktop. The system's MAC address can also be altered on the login screen.

Areas of use

If you start it without the Windows stealth mode, the operating system will welcome you with a no-frills Gnome interface (Figure 2). Only the icons for the Tor Browser and KeePassX – a graphical application for password management – in the upper panel bar really catch the eye. A look at the submenus shows that Tails both allows anonymous Internet access and is a full-fledged Linux desktop: The applications include both LibreOffice and Gimp. Tails also provides standard programs like Audacity, Totem, and Brasero in the multimedia section. Even the desktop publishing program Scribus is available for use. Tails also includes lesser-known programs such as BookletImposer, the collaborative editor Gobby, and the audio editor Traverso.

Figure 2: Tails uses a straightforward Gnome desktop by default but also has a range of privacy tools.

The Debian derivative also looks good under the hood: Tails provides, for example, driver modules for commonly problematic hardware components such as WiFi cards. It therefore automatically establishes a wireless connection on many devices without the need for an intricate manual installation of proprietary firmware. Although Tails is primarily intended for anonymous Internet access and secure live operation on different computers, it can still be adapted in many ways. To do this, access Tails Installer in the Applications | System Tools menu. Here, you can update a running system, and the update routine also takes into account the individually installed software (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Tails' installation routine allows the system to be installed and updated in live operation.


Tails uses the current version of Tor Browser (5.0) as the web browser [5]. It is based on Firefox 38.1.0 ESR and is hardened for using the Internet anonymously. The browser automatically establishes a connection to the Tor network when accessed and then manages all data packages using the connection. If there is a SOCKS proxy, you will find an onion icon at the top right of the Gnome desktop in the system tray. Tor Browser also uses a number of add-ons: As well as the ad blocker Adblock Plus, you will also find HTTPS Everywhere for establishing encrypted connection, and the NoScript tool for safeguarding.

If Tor Browser makes it impossible to open a website because of its restrictive settings, another browser is available. This is again Firefox 38.1.0 ESR which, in this case, establishes direct access to the Internet and allows cookies. You can find this option in the Applications | Internet option with the Insecure Internet Browser entry. This version doesn't natively use any add-ons; however, the browser is configured to secure privacy so it doesn't keep browser history.

Tails uses Pidgin with off-the-record messaging (OTR) for chatting [6]. This protocol is based on all chat protocols like Jabber, ICQ, or AIM and is considered very secure. Various chat clients also support OTR innately or through optional modules.

The email client Claws automatically uses SSL communication, meaning that your emails are transmitted securely. Furthermore, Tails allows you to encrypt emails and data via OpenPGP. Using the OpenPGP applets integrated in the system tray, it is possible, for example, to cryptographically handle texts that you want to send via email later.

To do this, open the editor Gedit from the OpenPGP applet context menu via the Open Text Editor option and write the text. Then, copy the text to the clipboard using Ctrl+C and select – again from the applet menu – Sign/Encrypt Clipboard with Public Key . Then, look for the desired key from the list in the dialog that opens and confirm the security prompt by clicking OK . You can transfer the now encrypted text using Ctrl+V from the clipboard to the email client or to the web mailer's editor section.

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