The Amnesic Incognito Live System, or Tails, is a Linux-based operating system that implements several security features and protocols that enhance user security greatly compared to other operating systems such as Windows, OSX, or any number of other more popular systems.
Originally developed by the United State Naval Research Laboratory, Tails boasts the ability to mask a user’s online activity and communications, as well as location. While utilizing the Tor network to encrypt and anonymous all internet traffic, implementing several tools to encrypt data, and ability to erase all data after use are excellent features, Tails’ most characterizing trait is that it is free.
The developers of Tails set out to provide some counter balance to the increasingly-transparent way that personal information is stored, shared, and accessed online by third parties and governments, all while keeping it simple enough for an average person to use. The code is open-source so anyone can take a look at it to check for potential security flaws, which get ironed out in updated releases made available on the official Tails website.
“Tails boasts the ability to mask a user’s online activity and communications, as well as location”
One of the most characteristic features of Tails, is that it has been developed to be used as a Live Operating System, which means it can be booted from a USB stick, Flash Memory Card, or even from a CD/DVD. This means the user doesn’t have to install tails on a computer they are operating from, they simply use that computer to run Tails. It’s comparable to watching a movie in one’s DVD player; while the DVD is inside the DVD player, you can watch the movie. If you take the disk out however, you can no longer watch the movie and scenes from it aren’t stored on your DVD player. That’s how Tails works; it provides an Operating System while accessed by a user’s computer, but upon removal erases all traces of it’s use. This is where Tails gets the Live System portion of it’s name.
Tails has been developed to operate by only using a host computer’s Random Access Memory (RAM) rather than storing any information on the actual hard drive. Random Access Memory gets deleted every time a computer shuts down, so with the use of Tails a user can feel confident that they have left no trace of their online activity on their computer. This is where Tails gets the Amnsesic portion of it’s name.
Tails utilizes the Tor Network to keep user identities kept private, as well as location and computer data. The Tor network is a global project which has created a network of computers which anonymize user data, protecting online communication. Also developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, The Tor Network was originally designed for keeping military communications secure.
“Tails utilizes the Tor Network to keep user identities kept private, as well as location and computer data”
The Tor Project, which encompasses the active development and maintenance of the Tor Network, allows for many variations of accessing the Tor Network through downloadable packages from the Project’s website. Tails not only encompasses the most secure aspects of any Tor Bundle offered through the Tor Network website, but it has been developed around the Tor Network which allows for all of it’s features to maintain a high level of security with less room for user error. This is where Tails gets the Incognito portion of it’s name.Examples of The Tor Networks Infrastructural Configuration
Another security measure offered by Tails is the ability to “spoof,” or falsify, a computer’s Media Access Control (MAC) address. This makes identifying a user’s computer even more difficult for any third party that may be attempting to monitor a Tails user’s online activity. A “spoofed” MAC address could be compared to using a fake I.D.; anyone that relies on the fake I.D. for identifying a person would come to the conclusion that they are someone other else, keeping their true identity a secret. This is another factor that contributes to the Incognito portion of Tails’ name.
In addition to the core framework of Tails security measures, many other supplemental protocols and applications are included which work to boast security even further. A brief list of several of these components and their pusposes, taken from the Tails website, provide an idea of the types of services Tails comes packaged with:
- Encrypt your USB sticks or external hard-disks using LUKS, the Linux standard for disk-encryption.
- Automatically encrypt with HTTPS all your communications to a number of major websites using HTTPS Everywhere, a Firefox extension developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
- Encrypt and sign your emails and documents using the de facto standard OpenPGP either from Tails email client, text editor or file browser.
- Protect your instant messaging conversations using OTR, a cryptographic tool that provides encryption, authentication and deniability.
- Securely delete your files and clean your diskspace using Nautilus Wipe.
As many security experts express, total security and anonymity online is an exceedingly difficult goal to achieve. In addition to using the types of measures provided by Tails, users often have to rethink their online habits to allow the full potential of Tails’ security measures to be effective. For instance, if a user has been using a copy of tails booted from a CD, on a laptop without a hard drive, on public WIFI, with the “spoofed” MAC address option enabled, they will have observed a paramount degree of security precautions. If, however, that user were to log into their Facebook account right before logging off, every single precaution they had taken to protect their identity would have been pointless.
“By simply using Tails casually will still allow users to be much more secure than if they were running a copy of Windows of Mac OS”
Downloading files, allowance of certain scripts, logging into any site that maintains a log of IP addresses of it’s users, or failing to use comprehensive data encryption practices all possess the potential to unmask a user as well. To better understand the limitations of the protections offered by Tails, as well as the Tor Network, the warning section of the official Tails website offers very thorough explanations. While the details offered in that section may seem intimidating to the average computer user, one should keep in mind that none of those protocols are observed by average computer users, and that by simply using Tails casually will still allow users to be much more secure than if they were running a copy of Windows of Mac OS, or a smart phone.
While complete online privacy is a very difficult task to achieve, maintaining certain habits while online can greatly increase a user’s chance of maintaining anonymity. In addition to smart, security-focused online habits, there are several hardware accommodations that can be made to assist the user as well. Computers incapable of storing user data make the risk of leaving potentially-revealing information behind, and allowing for unwanted third-party software to be inconspicuously installed without user consent. In the battle to maintain online privacy however, one of the simplest and most-effective measures that a user can make to guard their identity and privacy is the implementation of the free, constantly updated Total Amnesic Incognito Live System whose developers refer to as Tails.