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Heads up, private penguins: Tails 4.0 is out. Security-conscious Linux gets updated apps, speed boost

'More changes than any version since years' in Tor-touting OS

Tails has released version 4.0 of the privacy-focused Linux distro, based on Debian 10, with numerous feature and usability improvements.

Tails stands for "The Amnesic Incognito Live System". It is most commonly started from a USB stick and runs as a live operating system which by default is non-persistent.

You can configure a "persistent volume", in which case Tails creates encrypted storage protected by a passphrase, where you can store stuff including documents, emails and email settings, browser bookmarks, printer settings and some additional applications. A persistent volume must be on removable media, such as spare space on the USB stick where Tails is installed, and not on a desktop hard drive. It is therefore unsuitable as a general-purpose operating system.

Not all USB sticks or PCs work with Tails, so if you want to use it, check the known issues carefully.

Applications installed by default in Tails include the Tor browser, Onion Share (for secure file sharing), LibreOffice, KeePassXC password manager, Electrum Bitcoin wallet (only useful with a persistent volume) and a few other productivity tools and utilities.

The target audience could be journalists, political activists and anyone with good or bad reasons to want anonymity and security. The Tails philosophy is spelled out in a "social contract" here.

We installed Tails in a virtual machine, but this is not recommended for serious use as the host operating system may be untrustworthy and the virtual environment may leave traces of the Tails session on the host. You are expected to do your web browsing with Tor, though an "unsafe browser" is also included (and well flagged) solely for the purpose of navigating captive portals in order to get a connection from public Wi-Fi.

New features to 4.0 include upgraded applications including Tor browser 9.0, LibreOffice 6.1.5 and so on. Tails 4.0 is said to start 20 per cent faster, requires 250MB less RAM and to be 47MB smaller to download. The Tails image is 1.1GB. There is also an improved on-screen keyboard. Everything you need for things like encrypted emails, clearing metadata from documents, and signing files so recipients can check that have not been tampered with, is close at hand.

The future roadmap includes support for secure boot, automatic upgrades, better documentation, accessibility for blind users and general usability improvements.

The Tails team is serious about privacy and reading through the documentation and warnings gives a good idea of the many issues that you need to consider. It is somewhat inconvenient to use but, considering the features on offer, not hard to use either. ®

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