Tails above the Rest, Part II


Beyond browsing, instant messaging is another communication tool that could benefit from some privacy. Tails includes the Pidgin instant-messaging client and by default enables only the communication plugins for IRC and XMPP, as they are considered to have a decent security track record with respect to fixing security bugs. Each time you start Tails, it creates a random English-sounding user name for Pidgin to help aid in your anonymity. In addition, it includes the OTR (Off the Record) plugin that helps you have private IM conversations by not only encrypting the communication end to end, but it also authenticates the person you are chatting with, has forward secrecy, and even adds a deniability element to make it difficult outside the conversation to prove who said what (there's more information about how OTR achieves this at http://www.cypherpunks.ca/otr).

Other Applications

I'll cover e-mail in more depth in a follow-up column where I discuss encryption, but Tails includes the Claws mail client that you can use to access any personal e-mail accounts. Of course, it's worth saying that if you do access a personal e-mail account without using SSL encryption, even over the Tor network, someone who is sniffing the traffic coming from that Tor exit node, or sniffing traffic coming into your e-mail provider, will be able to correlate your account with that particular Tor session.

Beyond e-mail, Tails also includes the OpenOffice.org productivity suite, so you can work on documents and spreadsheets, the GIMP for image editing, and Audacity so you can listen to and edit audio files. Many people could very well spend their entire day within Tails and get work done.


Once you are done with Tails, you can log out and select to reboot or shut down the computer. In either case, since anything that might identify you resides only in RAM, Tails makes a point to wipe the contents of RAM before it completely shuts down. I've noticed on my computers that this results in strange artifacts showing up on the screen during that process, but once it's done, Tails will shut down safely, and you can remove the DVD or USB drive.

This covers just some of the basic usage of Tails, but in my next column, I'll cover some of the more advanced uses, including persistent disks, encryption and some of the other internal Tails tools that are dense enough topics that they deserve their own treatment. In the meantime, enjoy your safe and private Internet browsing.


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