Tails 5.11: Secure-surfing 'amnesiac' live distro arrives

The latest version of TAILS has improved memory management, which means it should work a little better on memory-constrained computers. It's the go-to option for secure private internet access.

Tails 5.11, just released, has some worthwhile improvements that may make it run a little better on machines lacking large amounts of memory. Tails now uses ZRAM as standard, like the unofficial Ubuntu DDE remix and Debian variant Spiral Linux.

ZRAM sounds crazy: it creates one compressed RAM disk for each available CPU core, then uses them for swap. In other words, it uses real memory to simulate virtual memory on disk. There is method to this madness, though, and both Apple macOS (since "Mavericks") and Windows 10 and 11 use similar technologies. If you run several large apps on Linux on a low-memory computer, it can make the OS more stable and improve performance when switching between apps.

Tails 5.11 comes with kernel 6.1, but a slightly older version of GNOME, 3.38.5. The maintainers are stern on why there are no alternatives to GNOME and won't be in the future, so if you're even more averse to GNOME than this vulture, look elsewhere. The desktop has been been tweaked a little, with Applications and Places menus and a sort of taskbar at the bottom of the screen.

Tails - it's an acronym, so we feel it ought to be TAILS - is an odd little Linux distro, and while it does what it says on the tin, it doesn't always take the easiest road to get there. If you know your way around Linux, then in brief: It's a live-only distro, with optional persistent storage if you install it on a USB key. It comes with the TOR browser and networking client, on by default, and a few other networking apps: Thunderbird, Pidgin, the KeePassXC password manager, a Bitcoin wallet for the terminally gullible, and some of the usual Linux desktop apps such as LibreOffice and so on. Since the Debian 11-based Tails 5 came out, KDE's Kleopatra digital certificate manager has replaced the GNOME one.

TAILS stands for The Amnesic Incognito Live System and it describes itself as:

The key features are that you can boot it on any x86-64 PC, get online in a secure and nearly untraceable way, then shut the PC down and remove the USB key, leaving no trace on the machine. That is undeniably a good thing, and it reminds us of the fictional "Paranoid Linux" OS in Cory Doctorow's excellent novel Little Brother. (Like all Doctorow's books, you can buy it, or download it for free from the author's site.

So far, so good, although it may be over-selling itself a little bit.

The amnesic bit in the name is true of any live USB environment, so long as you don't set up persistent storage - which Tails offers to do as you boot it. It doesn't touch the hard disk, which is good - many live Linux distros will use a swap partition if they can find one. In fact, Tails comes without a root password configured, and after you've booted it you can't set one, which means that you can't mount partitions on the hard disk.

The incognito bit is fair, but you could just add the Tor browser to any other live distro and use that. If you don't have one with persistent storage to hand, though, you'd give yourself away as you downloaded it. So, it is more than handy to have it pre-installed: if you're really paranoid, it's essential. Plus, as Tails has no other web browser, you can't lazily take a shortcut around its protection.

The live system part is true, though far from unique, but at 1.3GB, Tails is pretty small by modern standards. Its maintainers upgrade it frequently, offer their own integrated update system, and discourage using traditional Debian methods to update it.

We found it a little odd that there's documentation dedicated to how to install a live distro. Surely the point of a live distro is that you don't install it, you just boot it, we thought. Well, no: you can duplicate existing live media, copy configs via QR codes, and more besides. We fear we just lack a sufficiently paranoid mindset to fully appreciate the complexities.

We just copied the ISO onto a key formatted with Ventoy and it worked fine, but Tails wasn't able to configure persistent storage on this - which is fair enough, as it's doable but tricky.

Tails is small, simple, and it works. It's not a general-purpose live distro, but there are better options for that out there. If you have genuine reasons to believe someone's snooping on your internet traffic, this is an easy way to substantially improve your security, as well as to safely use someone else's PC without any risk of virus infection, leaving traces of your presence, or accidentally harming the PC. ®

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