Tails, short for "The Amnesic Incognito Live System," came to the world's attention last month when the Freedom of the Press Foundation revealed that Edward Snowden used a beta version of the Linux distribution to securely communicate with reporters. Now, the same highly secure distro used by Snowden to leak NSA materials has been released as version 1.0 under an open GPLv3 license.
Tails' first line of defense against snoopers is the fact that it's a "live" OS, designed to boot up and run entirely from a USB drive, DVD, or SD card. The distribution is said to leave no trace on the host computer. There's a long tradition of live Linux distributions dating back over a decade with distros such as Knoppix.
Tails' second line of defense is that it uses the open source Tor anonymity network for web surfing and communications. Tor has become increasingly popular among journalists, dissidents, privacy advocates, spies, criminals, terrorists, and others who want to keep their online behavior anonymous. Developed by the U.S. Navy, Tor generates a complex network of virtual tunnels to hide IP addresses from prying eyes.
Finally, Tails supplies security tools including OpenPGP encryption, KeePassX password management, LUKS disk encryption, and Off-the-Record (OTR) encrypted chat. These and other applications like the Pidgin IM client and Claws email client, have been tweaked for security, privacy, and anonymity. For example, Firefox is configured with the HTTPS Everywhere extension from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). A virtual keyboard helps protect against hardware keyloggers.
Tails also ships with basic productivity tools such as Audacity, GIMP, and OpenOffice. Yet, as Wired recently noted, Tails is not intended as an everyday OS. "That’s because over the course of day-to-day use, you’re likely to use one service or another that could be linked with your identity, blowing your cover entirely," says the story.
Tails has been five years and 36 stable releases in the making, if you include the Amnesia distro it evolved from. Both Amnesia and Incognito, the Debian distro Amnesia was based on, have been merged into Tails.