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Digital Solution Helps Shield Online Activists

Chris Doten knows how hazardous it can be for democracy activists and journalists working under hostile regimes.

As manager for digital technology programs at the National Democratic Institute, the nonpartisan NGO supporting transparency and openness in government, Doten’s job is to help journalists and pro-democracy advocates protect their privacy from government snoops while online.

“We do work in relatively closed societies,” Doten said. “There are a lot of dangers, and we always try to take a thoughtful look at the risks that we’re incurring for the people we’re working with.”

Those risks often include government raids, computer seizure, data theft through malware, and the exposure of sources, supporters and private email communications. Such breaches can lead to arrest, expulsion or worse.

But Doten said there’s a digital solution that’s helping growing numbers journalists and others around the world safeguard their online activities.

It’s called “Tails,” and it gives even the most technologically challenged individuals the ability to shield their Internet communications and activity from just about any government in the world.

Live system advantage

“Tails” is an acronym that stands for The Amnesic Incognito Live System.

In computer jargon, a “live system” is a stand-alone operating system that runs directly off a DVD or, increasingly, a USB memory stick.

Because a live system runs solely on a computer’s RAM, none of the operating system files are saved anywhere.

Once downloaded to a USB, users just plug it in to any computer and run it.

When ejected, the Tails live system leaves no trace of its existence as the computer has literally zero memory of Tails ever having been used.

Tails also uses the Tor anonymizing network for all connections to the Internet – thus incognito.

A Tails developer, who requested to remain unnamed for security reasons, told VOA that their goal was to create a tool that “combined very good security by default while being accessible to a large public.”

Early on, Tails developers realized that neither a live system nor Tor by itself was enough to fully hide users’ identities and online activities. However, when they were combined together, the developer said, they created a formidable shield.

'Identifying information'

“All kind of identifying information can be leaked, even through Tor, like the fingerprint of your browser, the name of your machine or user, or metadata from your documents,” the developer said. “Live systems … leave no trace on the computer.

“While Tor can protect you from an attacker on the network, it doesn't protect you from an attacker who can access your computer and analyze its content, such as a repressive government, your boss or someone harassing you at home,” the developer said.

“As live systems run only from RAM, when you shut them down, any trace of your activity disappears automatically from the computer," the developer added.

Both Doten and the Tails developer point out that while Tails provides fairly good privacy by itself, it also comes with a suite of additional security apps that users can easily access.

“Tails enables a lot of encryption – such as end-to-end encryption through PGP right out of the box – but that’s not automatic,” Doten said.

“There’s also a multi-protocol chat client that can speak to Facebook, Google Chat, and others called Pidgin. So people can use Tails, and then add on PGP or Pidgin with people using counterpart tools on the other end of the conversation," he added.

These and other tools – such as GnuPG for encrypting email, the Electrum Bitcoin wallet, and KeePassX for storing strong passwords – allow users to custom-tailor their own levels of privacy protection and anonymization.

“Tails ends up providing your operating system; what happens after that is up to you,” Doten said.

Tails' many uses

Tails isn’t new; the first versions were launched a little more than five years ago.

And because Tails is free and mostly used by individuals who want to remain anonymous, the Tails developer told VOA that it’s hard to know for sure exactly who, or how many, are using the system.

What is known is that a growing number of journalists and advocacy organizations, such as the NDI’s Doten, are publicly championing the use of Tails.

“I’m pretty sure of the 100 or so people I’ve trained on PGP that a grand total of zero are using it regularly,” Doten told VOA. “Tails is much easier and more straightforward for most people.

"Our partners think of Tails like their work environment: it lets you do what you need to do for your job," he added.

Reporters Without Borders, the nonprofit NGO supporting freedom of the press, also recommends Tails for journalists who need to protect their sources.

Tibetan activists are using Tails to securely document human-rights abuses there by the Chinese government. And groups working to fight domestic abuse, such as Transition House and Emerge, are now using Tails to report abuse and shield victims' identities.

“I especially make sure to keep it with me when traveling,” said Karachi-based investigative journalist Fahad Desmukh. “Pakistan really isn't the safest place for journalists.”

FILE - This photo provided by The Guardian Newspaper in London shows Edward Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the National Security Agency.
FILE - This photo provided by The Guardian Newspaper in London shows Edward Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the National Security Agency.

Endorser of Tails

Perhaps the highest-profile endorsement for Tails came in 2013, when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden insisted on its use by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras before he would reveal any of the documents about undisclosed NSA surveillance programs he had collected.

As with any other encryption or anonymizing application, Tails can be used for ill as well as good.

The same robust protections that help protect human-rights activists can be used by hackers, criminal gangs or even terrorists to hide their identity and activity online.

While acknowledging that possibility, NDI’s Doten said the real worry should be how often cyberactivists, journalists and others working to expand democracy are targeted online, and then punished for their activities.

“I’m frankly shocked at the state of digital security among U.S. journalists; people who have real dangers that they’ve seen externally and internally at times,” he said.

“The fact that newsrooms around the country – even the big ones – are not investing more in this I think is a real crime," Doten said.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.