Tails above the Rest, Part II

The Tails Desktop

Before you get to the Tails desktop itself, you are greeted with a login prompt (Figure 1) that asks if you'd like more options. These additional options allow you to use persistent volumes, set administrator passwords and go into incognito Windows mode. But, I'll cover more advanced features in a follow-up column, so in the meantime, just click Login.

Figure 1. The Tails Pre-Desktop Prompt

Tails uses the all-too-familiar GNOME 2 desktop (Figure 2) with a panel along the top containing Applications, Places and System menus; a few icons for application shortcuts; and a notification area to the far right that lists the time along with icons, so you can see the status of the network, Tor, your battery (if you are on a laptop), a PGP applet and even an on-screen keyboard you can use to enter passwords if you suspect your computer might have a keylogger installed.

Figure 2. Default Tails Desktop

Tor and the Iceweasel Web Browser

The Tor Vidalia front-end application shows up in the notification area as an onion icon. The moment that Tails connects to a network, it will attempt to start up Tor, and this icon will change from yellow to green once Tor is fully up and configured. You can double-click the icon to open the Vidalia control panel to reset your Tor connection or view the current network. Once Tor is ready, Tails also will launch a Web browser configured much like the one in the Tor browser bundle with privacy-enhancing settings and plugins like NoScript (disables JavaScript), HTTPS-anywhere (attempts to connect to the HTTPS version of a Web page by default) as well as plugins so the browser uses Tor.

Like with the Tor Browser Bundle, all the sites you browse in the default browser go over the Tor network. The browser also uses search engines like Start Page in the default search bar. Start Page returns Google results but acts as a proxy to help anonymize your search queries. Don't be surprised if you sometimes get Web pages localized in a foreign language—Tor may route you over an exit node in a different country, and often sites try to be helpful and set the default language based on where they think you are from. If for some reason you need to use a Web browser outside Tor (for instance, so you can authenticate to an active portal on hotel Wi-Fi), there also is an unsafe browser option you can launch that bypasses Tor. Just be sure to close the browser once you are done so you don't mistakenly use it when you intend to browse over Tor.


Kyle Rankin is Chief Security Officer at Purism, a company focused on computers that respect your privacy, security, and freedom. He is the author of many books including Linux Hardening in Hostile Networks, DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu