Edward Snowden famously first contacted Laura Poitras using GPG email encryption, which eventually led to her, Glenn Greenwald, and Barton Gellman breaking the biggest story in decades. However, another tool has been even more critical to all of the main NSA journalists, and many people outside the digital security community have never heard of it: Tails, a ground-breaking operating system that forces privacy best-practices by default.
With assurances from the Tails developers and the main players in the NSA revelations, we feel it's safe to tell this story for the first time, and we hope this vital encryption and anonymity project can finally get the credit—and much needed support—it deserves. You can donate to the Tails project by going here.
We asked the three original NSA journalists about how important Tails was to their work. Here's what they had to say:
"I've been reluctant to go into details about the different steps I took to communicate securely with Snowden to avoid those methods being targeted. Now that Tails gives a green light, I can say it has been an essential tool for reporting the NSA story. It is an all-in-one secure digital communication system (GPG email, OTR chat, Tor web browser, encrypted storage) that is small enough to swallow. I'm very thankful to the Tails developers for building this tool."
“Tails have been vital to my ability to work securely on the NSA story. The more I've come to learn about communications security, the more central Tails has become to my approach.”
"Privacy and encryption work, but it's too easy to make a mistake that exposes you. Tails puts the essential tools in one place, with a design that makes it hard to screw them up. I could not have talked to Edward Snowden without this kind of protection. I wish I'd had it years ago."
Tails is an operating system that can be started on almost any computer from a DVD or USB stick. It attempts to solve many of the problems users have when setting up encryption tools for the first time by "doing the right thing" out of the box, by default:
- It forces all of your web traffic through the Tor anonymity network, so you don’t have to configure any of the settings on any program.
- It allows you to use GPG encryption when you are emailing and/or OTR encryption while instant messaging, with little setup required.
- It allows journalists to work on sensitive documents, edit audio and video, and store all their files in an encrypted format.
Critically, Tails never actually touches your hard drive and securely wipes everything you’ve done every time you shut it down (unless you specifically save it on an encrypted drive). This serves two important purposes: first, it helps journalists who are operating in environments or on networks that may already be compromised by governments or criminals. As we learned last week, if you’re working at a big news organization, that’s almost a given. Second, it prevents journalists from leaving any trace of work that they don’t specifically opt-in to leaving. This prevents information leakage and mistakes in case your computer falls into the wrong hands.
All of these qualities make it an ideal tool for journalists who are either steeped in security training or are coming to encryption for the first time and are a big reason why it won Access's 2014 Innovation Award for Endpoint Security. As always, everyone should remember that no privacy tool—including Tails—can guarantee you 100% security from all adversaries, and like all software, Tails may have vulnerabilities or weaknesses that could be exploited. But that's all the more reason to support the project, so those vulnerabilities can be found and fixed as quickly as possible.
The NSA stories have been the biggest story in journalism in the past decade, yet the tool relied on by the reporters who broke the stories is incredibly underfunded. Tails’ 2013 expense report shows that they only had an operating budget of around 42,000 euros, which is less than $60,000. They have only a handful of core developers and none are able to work full-time because of the lack of funds supporting it.
If you’d like to help journalists uncover more stories like the NSA revelations, help them by helping Tails. You can donate to them right now on our front page, along with other free software projects like Tor, Open WhisperSystems, and the LEAP encryption access project. You can also support Tails’ Knight Open News Challenge proposal, which could also get the Tails team critical funding so they can stay ahead of the security curve.
Next month, Tails will be launching version 1.0, a critical milestone for software projects. Let’s help them get to 1.0 and beyond.