Let’s dig into Tails’ basic capabilities, as well as the new changes.
Why Edward Snowden (and others) choose Tails
Tails stands for “The Amnesiac Incognito Live System,” and it’s designed to be booted and run entirely from a disc, USB drive, or SD card. This ensures no traces of your activity are written to your PC’s hard drive. It also means any malware or other surveillance software running on a computer’s normal operating system—Windows, for example—won’t be involved with the Tails session.
Even if you’re using an untrusted computer, you can reboot it with Tails inserted. Boot up into Tails and you can now trust the computer much more, as you don’t have to worry about software running in the background snooping on you. It isn’t absolutely foolproof, however—in theory, malicious firmware on the PC’s hardware could be sitting in the background and snooping on you.
Tails includes the Tor Browser as well as the I2P anonymizing software. Unlike simply installing the Tor Browser on a typical computer, Tails is designed to route all communications possible over Tor and prevent applications from leaking traffic. The Tor enforcement document explains exactly how the underlying system is configured to force traffic through Tor. Not only does it force browser traffic through the Tor browser, it also routes other applications’ traffic over Tor, doing its best to prevent any anonymity-compromising traffic from leaking.
Not only does this make Tor much more foolproof and isolate anonymous Internet use from a computer’s normal operating system, all of the software you’ll need is preinstalled along with links to various help pages. It’s a single package you can keep on a USB drive in your pocket, so you don’t have to hunt down all the software and install it individually.
What’s new in Tails 1.4
The latest version of Tails upgrades the Tor Browser to version 4.5. This latest release offers a security slider for restricting browser features even further, potentially offering more security. When you connect to a website, the latest Tor Browser loads all that website’s resources through the same Tor circuit. While browsing a website, it keeps using that same Tor circuit. When you go to a different website, it uses a new Tor circuit. This prevents websites from connecting your website visits to you and ensures a website’s behavior won’t change as you’re viewing it.
The new default search engine is “Disconnect.” This search engine provides anonymized results from Google, and you won’t see the normal CAPTCHAs attempting to confirm you’re a human that you would if you were using Google through Tor. A command named Paperkey is also included, allowing you to print a backup of your OpenPGP secret keys to a piece of paper.
Aside from these changes, there are the usual ones you’d expect in a new version of a Linux distribution—version bumps to the Tor and I2P software, support for more printers, and better support for Vietnamese fonts in LibreOffice. Read the Tails 1.4 release notes for more details. If you’re actually planning on using Tails, be sure to read the about page and warnings before getting started.
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Chris Hoffman is a tech geek who's been writing about everything technology-related for years. When he's not writing about gadgets and software, he's probably using them in his spare time.