Review

Linux distributions built for security and anonymity


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If privacy and security are important to you, then you really should ditch Windows and OSX, as not only are they both closed systems (so who knows what malicious code is hidden away out of sight?), but both Microsoft and Apple have been heavily implicated in cooperating with the NSA, and their Operating Systems are widely believed to be backdoored by the US government.

Linux, on the other hand, is a free and open source Operating System, which makes it much less likely that it has been tampered with by the NSA or its kin (which isn’t to say the NSA hasn’t tried!), as the source code can be independently audited for backdoors and other malicious code..

Although even the most consumer friendly (‘Windows replacement’) Linux distributions (such as Ubuntu and Mint) are generally considered much more secure than Windows or OSX, some ‘distros’ have been specifically designed to provide maximum security and anonymity.

All these Operating Systems can be booted and run directly from a Live CD/ DVD, and / or a LiveUSB stick, and this is the most secure way to access the internet using them. Permanent installation is not recommended, as these distros are designed to run in an isolated environment that leaves the computer they are running on untouched after they have been booted out of.

Less secure (but still pretty damn secure), and much more convenient for users who need to work alongside Windows / OSX / desktop replacement Linux distros, is the ability to run Linux in a virtual machine (watch out for an upcoming guide to installing Linux in Oracle VM VirtualBox).

Most of these versions of Linux are not suitable as desktop replacements, so most users will probably also need to use a ‘regular’ operating system for day-to-day use, in which case be sure to perform sensitive tasks only within the secure Linux environment. Remember, security is not just about the tools, it is a system (i.e. how you use the tools).

Secure Linux distros

TAILS: The Amnesiac Incognito Live System

Probably the most well-known ‘anonymity OS’, TAILS was the tool of choice for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. All connections are routed through the Tor Anonymity network, and by default all data is stored solely in RAM, and is erased when Tails is exited.

extensions

Pros

  • Based on the Gnu / Debian fork of Linux, which has been heavily audited for malicious code
  • Routes all internet connections through Tor
  • Comes with a range of well-respected open source programs that emphasise privacy, providing most of the necessary tools that journalists, whistleblowers, and suchlike will need to perform their task without being tracked or identified
  • MAC address spoofing
  • ‘Windows camouflage’ option to make use inconspicuous

Cons

  • Tails looks somewhat outdated (it uses a very old version of GNOME desktop), and provides a very stripped down user experience
  • No native way to save files etc.

Tails is an excellent tool for getting a job done when security and anonymity are a very high priority, and is therefore perfect for the Edward Snowden’s of this world. Most users will find it far too ugly and restrictive for day-to-day casual use however, so it is no desktop replacement. This is as it should be however, and the Tails website takes pains to explain that for maximum security a brand new session should be run for each task performed.

We have a full review of Tails available here, and it can be downloaded from here.

Ubuntu Privacy Remix (UPR)

Ubuntu is the most popular ‘desktop replacement’ version of Linux, and UPD is a hardened version of it, designed to run in an ‘isolated working environment where sensitive data can be dealt with safely’, and ‘all user data reside exclusively on encrypted removable media.’

 Ubuntu Privacy Remix security

Pros

  • Very user friendly – can be used as a full desktop replacement
  • Based on Debian
  • All user data stored only on encrypted removable media
  • Non-manipulable operating system – makes OS immune to infection by malicious software
  • Custom GnuPG front end for private email, with improvements over default Ubuntu Seahorse front end
  • TrueCrypt pre-installed (until TrueCrypt has been fully audited, this feature should probably be avoided)

Cons

  • Not designed for anonymous internet use (although Tor or VPN can installed)
  • No network connection (but on the flipside, this makes it immune to network attacks)

UPR provides a hardened Ubuntu environment, and therefore works well as fully featured desktop OS, as long as network connections are not required. Most of the extra security tools available on Tails can be installed, but connections are not automatically routed through Tor. Basically, UPR is a great desktop OS for day to day use, but the super-paranoid should still consider Tails for highly sensitive use.

Ubuntu Privacy Remix is available here.

JonDo Live-DVD

JonDonym is a commercial anonymous proxy service that works much like Tor, routing your internet connection though a series of ‘mixer’ servers, encrypting it each time. JonDonym claims to be much faster than Tor (we plan to do a full review of the service in the near future), but while a restricted free service is available, a premium account is required to get the most out of it. The JonDo Live-DVD is a secure environment based on Debian GNU/Linux, and which is preconfigured to use the JonDonym network.

JonDo LiveCD

Pros

  • Secure Debian GNU/Linux environment
  • Preconfigured for JonDonym network
  • Also includes TorBrowser
  • Includes a good assortment of privacy-centric tools, plus some useful general purpose apps
  • Good documentation and support

Cons

  • Not really fully featured enough to act as a desktop replacement
  • No native way to save files etc.

Sort of like a Tails for JonDonym users, JonDo Live-DVD provides most things whistelblowers, journalists etc. are likely to need, in a highly secure environment. It is too stripped down to act as a full desktop replacement however.

JonDo Live-DVD can be downloaded here.

IprediaOS

The Invisible Internet Project (I2P) is a decentralised anonymising network built using Java on similar principles to Tor, but which was designed from the ground up as a self-contained darknet. We discuss I2P (and darknets in general) at some length in a two-part series beginning here. IprediaOS is a Fedora (we think) based Linux OS, which routes all connections through I2P.

iprediaOS

Pros

  • Routes all connections through I2P darknet (can visit .i2P sites, and open-web connections are automatically proxied)
  • Provides useful privacy and general purpose tools
  • Available in both GNOME-based, and LXDE-based Linux desktop versions

Cons

  • Fairly basic so, again, not a suitable desktop replacement
  • No native way to save files etc.
  • Not much documentation or support, although there is plenty of (quite jargon-heavy) support for I2P

IprediaOS is similar to Tails, except that it routes connections through I2P. It is available to download here.

Whonix

Whonix takes a somewhat different approach to the other Operating Systems listed here. It is designed to works inside a VirtualBox Virual Machine (VM), ensuring that DNS leaks are not possible, and that ‘not even malware with root privileges can find out the user’s real IP’. It consists of two parts, the first of which acts as a Tor gateway (known as Whonix Gateway), while the second (known as a Whonix Workstation) is on a completely isolated network which routes all its connections through the Tor gateway.

This isolation of the workstation away from the internet connection (and all isolated from the host OS inside a VM), makes Whonix highly secure (not as secure as booting from a Live-CD/DVD/USB, but more secure than simply running a secure Linux distro inside a VM).

Whonix Gateway

Pros

  • Works inside a VM, isolated from a Tor gateway, and all isolated from host OS, so ‘IP and DNS leaks are impossible’. For best security, the gateway and workstation should be on different computers
  • Debian GNU/Linux environment (KDE desktop)
  • Can be used as a full general purpose desktop OS
  • Plenty of documentation and support through user-forums. Paid-for professional support is also available

Cons

  • Complex to configure and setup

Setting up Whonix is not for the technically faint of heart, but it is almost certainly the most secure VM solution available, and it provides a fully featured desktop environment that can run side-by-side with your usual OS. Expect to see a more detailed review of Whonix in the near future.

You can download Whonix from here.

Other options

Lightweight Portable Security (LPS)

LPS is an award winning thin (282MB) Linux based OS designed to boot from CD or USB stick. It resides entirely within RAM when run (so no persistent user data is saved), but can write to USB sticks and portable hard drives. On the downside, the Firefox browser comes with Java and Flash support, which is useful, but is a security risk, and we don’t trust the fact that was developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory.

You can download Lightweight Portable Security here.

Privatix Live System

Very similar to Tails by design, Tails also credits Privatix as an inspiration. The two are so similar however (except that Privatix lacks funky features such as MAC spoofing and ‘‘Windows camouflage’ ), that we fail to see the point of Privatix.

Privatix is available here.

Freepto

Freepto routes all connections through Tor, and data is always automatically saved on the encrypted USB stick, which means that little of the convenience of a traditional operating system is lost. We were unable to download an uncorrupted copy of the .img file, however, and documentation is mostly in Italian.

Freepto can be downloaded from here.

Update 23 September 2014: As we noted, we were unable to test Freepto (and cannot read most of the documentation). We thank our reader Boyska for providing the following clarrifications,

freepto will NOT route everything through tor. It is NOT an anonymity-oriented live distribution, even if it provides some anonimization tools. Its goal is to provide a simple, usable, encrypted linux system, providing a simple way to switch from the typical unsecure, proprietary, bloated with thousands useless applications operating system to a secure one without even installing it.’

So which OS should I use?

It’s horses for courses really, and depends on both what you are trying to do, and what your threat model is. Tails is probably the most secure system we have looked at here, but it is very much designed for performing high-risk activities (and should be restarted for each new task performed), and is not suitable for general use. If I2P or JonDonym are your thing rather than Tor, then IprediaOS and JonDO Live-CD provide similar functionality to Tails.

If, on the other hand, you after a more general purpose Operating System, Ubuntu Privacy Remix is easy to use, and is much more secure than most versions of Linux. Whonix also works well as a complete desktop replacement, is very secure, and is designed to work alongside your usual OS. It is however a real pain to set up, and requires a high degree of technical literacy to get working properly (and securely).


Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. Find me on Google+

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47 responses to “Linux distributions built for security and anonymity

  1. Dear Mr Crawford,

    I’ve just found a Linux distribution which I find very interesting.

    Its name is Kodachi. It has been developed by people from Oman.

    It uses Tor, Whonix, DNcrypt and has got a VPN. And lots of other interesting programs.
    I have used it today and it works fine.

    What do YOU think about it? Can you recommend it? Is Kodachi full of back doors etc.?

    1. Hi John,

      I have been hearing good things about Kodachi, but have not yet had the time to give it proper assessment. I have however, put a Kodachi Review on my list of things to do…

  2. You state that Whonix is “Complex to configure and setup” and that “Setting up Whonix is not for the technically faint of heart” but that simply isn’t true. No matter what OS you’re running setting up Whonix is just as easy to install as it is to write any of the live OS’ you mentioned to a USB drive. It is certainly easier than the recommended way, on the Tails website, of getting Tails onto a USB drive.

    1. Hi CJ,

      Setup instructions for Whonix are available here. I think that most users will find installing Whonix into a VM more difficult than burning a LiveUSB, but I understand that others may feel differently.

    1. Hi Max,

      Tails is designed run directly from a LiveDVD. By default all data is stored solely in RAM, and is erased when Tails is exited. If you wish to save data between sessions then there are (somewhat cumbersome) ways around this, but this is not how the OS is designed to be used.

  3. Hi just wanted to point out a very nice distro i found recentlywhich is called kodachi (available free from http://www.digi77.com website) this distro is a live distro but can also be installed to hard drive it has all traffic automatically routed through a vpn which is then routed through tor and has dns encryption added to that mix and there is 3 possibly 4 dns encryption tools that can be used this is all active by default the moment the system is booted on top of this there is some very nice and very useful conky style desktop readouts on display these carry the heading of EagleEye it is a DEBIAN based distro and comes with a highly customized gnome desktop with a number of different apps installed on top of the usual suspects such as iceweasel web browser and icedove email client etc etc,

    hope this proves useful to ppl

    P.S as most know (but i’ll say it anyway lol) there is no point using any kind of anonymous system if you then go using it to login to your favourite websites such as facebook or youtube for instance 🙂

    1. I’m happy to announce the general availability of the latest version of Linux Kodachi 3.3. The new version of the Linux Kodachi is available now on the Download site – digi77.com,
      Key changes:

      – Fixed DNS bug
      – Additional show Desktop icon was added to the right
      – Battery indicator was removed
      – System updated
      – Browser plugins updated
      – Tor Browser updated

      Linux Kodachi is free secure operating system feel free to test it and give us your feedback
      http://bit.ly/29QXjw3

      1. Kodachi 3 is a beautiful and efficient security distro, but the latest version has removed the installer. I understand that, but as an alternative, the availability of persistence on a USB flash drive would be a great addition to the OS.
        ~Richard

        1. I really wonder if Kodachi 3.4 is safe to use, because it has been developed in Oman. Oman is a country in which free speech and people who oppose the ruling families are not respected.

          Maybe, Qubes 3.2 is the better choise.

          1. Hi John,

            And a Qubes Review. If in doubt, I would stick to Tails for the time being. If it is good enough for Ed Snowden, its almost certainly good enough for anyone else.

  4. hi, thanks very much to help us writing articles like this one, i think you should add BackBox Linux distro, it is very fast and has Tor built-in too.

    1. Hi Ahmed,

      “BackBox is a Linux distribution based on Ubuntu Lucid 10.04 LTS developed to perform penetration tests and security assessments. Designed to be fast, easy to use and to provide a minimal yet complete desktop environment thanks to its own software repositories always been updated to the last stable version of the most known and used ethical hacking tools”

      Thanks for the heads-up. I will look at Backbox when it’s time to refresh this article, but it sounds a bit more of a security testbed OS than a general security one… (?)

  5. I’m a novice, so excuse my ignorance. Our company has several machines that ran Win XP. The only networking is connecting to the printer. Ie, they all connect through switches to a router and modem but the computers don’t need to connect to each other.

    From what you said, it looks like putting Ubuntu Privacy Remix (UPR) on these machines will not work because it will not network. So, would Mint or Freepto be better options? Keep in mind that some of the employees who will be using them don’t even like the idea of using firefox or chrome instead of IE. Their technical level is pretty low.

    1. Hi Daniel,

      If you want a “Windows replacement” OS, then Mint or Ubuntu are the way to go (Mint is more Windows-like). Freepto is designed to run off a USB stick, and although quite hardened, I doubt it is what you are looking for.

  6. Hey team,

    I am wanting to get into malware analysis/cyber security (possibly as a job one day).
    Are these types of OS acceptable/safe for installing and running malware intentionally to inspect what they do? (Im thinking TAILS OS).

    I plan to gain knowledge with malware analysis tools but until then its likely I will be triggering multiple malware, running R.A.Ts that have been backdoored, purchasing malware from darkweb vendors to study and so on.. How safe is it using these types of OS? Will all harmful changes caused by the malware be reverted on shutdown?

    1. Hi Craazz,

      In theory, yes, Linux Live Distos should be excellent for this purpose because they run directly from unwritable-to media (e.g.DVDs). Portions of the OS are loaded into RAM, but these are deleted the second the PC is turned off. Can I 100% cast-iron guarantee that no virus could possibly infect files on the rest of the computer? No.

  7. echoing the sentiments of PaxD76, I am also looking for a much more secure and private but everyday use linux distro. USB options are awsome, but they do not offer what I am looking for. Any advice on a linux to try out would be most appreciated!

    1. Hi oloh,

      Yup, this is an article that I intend to write when my other commitments allow me! Linux Mint is a very popular choice, and now that Ubuntu has stopped sending searches to Amazon by default, it would also make a good newbie-freindly “Windows replacement.”

  8. If Windows OS emulation is desired, how can I choose a particular version? Is it possible?

    You see some Internet Cafes have version 7-10. I would say 7 seems to be the most prevalent at the time of this comment, ( even though I already run W10 on my unsecured Desktop).

    Will it always be a Windows XP that nobody really uses?

    1. Hi Jorge,

      In Linux you can dual-boot to a full Windows system, or run Windows in a Virtual Machine (VM). Parallels is an excellent VM program but pricey, while VirtualBox is good and free. If you have lots of the memory and processing power you can run any version of Windows, but if your machine is less powerful then it might be better to run the more resource-light Windows XP. Windows XP is less popular in general these day because it is very old now (14 years!) and is no longer officially supported by Microsoft. If you are running newer hardware you will also probably struggle to find Windows XP drivers for it.

  9. Nice article but unfortunately nothing is safe any more. The latest version of CryptoLocker now also actively infects OS.

    1. Hi Norbett,

      OS’s such as Tails work from LiveDVD’s, and so are immune to the likes of Cryptolocker, as the computer need only be rebooted to start afresh. As as isolated VM, it is also very unlikely that a Whonix instance would be infected by Cryptolocker, even if its host machine is infected.

  10. Thanks for the response. I keep coming across this site whenever I do research – good informative articles.

    Do you guys have RSS feeds? I looked over the site carefully a couple of days ago (on mobile now) and couldn’t find anything.

    FYI… burned a few liveCDs, including Tails. Tails was a much better experience than I expected. Loved the Win8 camouflage, support for videos and general usability, pop-up advice. Some short-comings but extremely usable as an everyday distribution.

    1. Hi PaxD76,

      At present we do not have an RSS feed, although I will pester our tech department about why this is (hopefully we will be able to offer this soon.) In the meantime, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter, which we publish every Friday, and which lists all our recent news articles and reviews etc. Tails is good, although I’m not sure it really replaces an everyday productivity desktop OS….

  11. These are nice options but tend to come across as overkill or lacking in some key areas – or both. It’s not a knock on any of these distros (some I will try later) but for a general user, I rarely see some key areas covered. I just might have to stick to a general purpose distro and add the features I need (after researching because I’m new to Linux).

    Bottom line… lots of people don’t need Snowden type security/anonymity. We would, however, like to protect ourselves from Local Searches, Online Tracking/Surveillance, ISP snooping or even using the company wifi at work (many companies log all usage). All basic stuff before we begin thinking and prepping for some of the heavy-duty stuff:

    Some stuff I rarely see discussed on secureDistros:

    1. Firewall: setting up, running, auto-startup (or auto-startup on network connection)

    2. ARP Protection (MITM). Most of us are on WiFi. Coming from the Windows world, I could install any number of FREE Firewalls that had this built-in along with other advanced features (Intrusion Detection, Block certain Apps, Identify Apps trying to access the internet, graphs displaying connected apps, real-time scanners of malware, real-time blockers, etc).

    3. Browser with secure add-ons. From the reviews, I usually see two/three add-ons but nothing beyond that. I’m running Firefox now and have the following as a base: uBlock Origin, https-everywhere, Privacy Badger, gui-config (advanced settings). I should probably add URL-shortener (displays real url before clicking). There are others I’m sure I’ve missed.

    4. Password Manager. Lots of these distros are built with apparently everything thrown in but lack real-world use. People use the internet, they access sites that need logins… yet suggested tools in this category are non-existent.

    5. System Cleaners: Again, coming from the Apocalyptic World that is Microsoft OSes, cleaners are standard practice that alleviate some problems (including privacy issues – cookies, traces, tidying-up). I don’t think any of these distros have any suggestions in this area and I won’t believe that Linux doesn’t need this. There are lots of logs, caches, recent file/folders stuff, last opened and lots of other areas I’ll be learning about in the coming years.

    6. Anti-virus?? Probably not needed but here’s the thing… If there are any Linux viruses anywhere in the world, I would like to have access to a scanner that can identify them. I want to be able to go to a developer’s site and download from there on rare occasions. I might even like to have access to a scanner (that runs on Linux) that can identify alternative OS viruses (windows namely) – in case I do ‘Wine’ to run an app or develope a winApp using mostly LinuxTools (I can can pre-scan to see what it reports – maybe an issue with the compressor).

    Sorry about the wall of text. No complaints just wondering out loud why these basic things aren’t a part of the general linux discussion re: basic security long before we get into some of the compromises we have to make above (LiveCD only, no write support, etc…)

    1. Hi PaxD76,

      You raise some good points, but be aware that many of the distros listed in this article are designed to be run as LiveCDs, so anti-virus, system cleaners, etc. are not needed. I agree that BestVPN should publish some articles on more general purpose Linux distros that can replace Windows/OSX with a more secure desktop OS… I will put this on our ‘to-do’ list. I will also look into the other topics you mention. Off the top of my head, KeePass password manager runs on Linux, Firefox for Linux will run will run pretty much all standard Firefox plug-ins, and IPCop is a good FOSS Linux Firewall…

  12. You could technically just run Linux from a live cd, as it is saved only in ram (unless you install it) that is as close you could get to a current version of TAILS. On the other hand a live cd also doubles up as a diagnostic/recovery disc if the option is available. TOR is also currently old tech and they don’t even use stuff like Duck Duck Go or Startpage. If the whole argument behind anonymity is about remaining anonymous there are several things TOR doesn’t do or at least needs to update.

  13. What about running the whonix workstation on your pc, and connecting to a wifi hotspot that is configured to route all traffic through tor?

    1. Hi Stacey,

      That would work, although configuring a router for Tor is not easy (unless you buy a dedicated router such an Anonabox.) Accessing the internet using a Tor Browser instance inside the Whonix Workstation would achieve a similar end, and is much easier to setup.

  14. Hi,

    The review is great, it covers largely for panoroid users. Can You cover distros that available for masses and which ones are considered to be better secure.

    I have a private server rented in germany, i was running Debian 7.4. I kept it updated regularly. But 2 days ago, my server started port scanning and sending email worms to many people. Some of them complained to my provider and me. I tried formatting and reinstalling the system but problems comes back. I did not install or used any suspicious program that could have done it.

    Can you suggest a distro for my situation ? I use the system to learn linux OS and personal use like torrent. I am considering to use it for hosting my site / blogs on it in future and for digital marketing. I cannot go ahead if I dont sort this problem.

    As of today, I have shut down the system and trying to find best possible solution for my issues.

    Regards,
    Praveer.

    1. Hi Praveer,

      That is an excellent suggestion, and will go on my ‘to do’ list :). I would have to do some research before making any concrete recommendations (so look out for an upcoming article on the subject, but will observe that using a vps for torrenting is not a good idea, as vps providers are not setup for privacy (as decent VPN providers are) and will almost certainly pass on DMCA-style notices to you, and even provide copyright enforcement bodies/legal sharks with your details (including real IP address)…

    1. Hi asianic,

      You are correct, with Whonix you are running two virtual machines (plus your native OS), which puts a considerable load on your PC. In addition to this, Whonix uses Tor, which is slow anyway. On the other hand, it is very secure…

  15. freepto will NOT route everything through tor. It is NOT an anonymity-oriented live distribution, even if it provides some anonimization tools.

    Its goal is to provide a simple, usable, encrypted linux system, providing a simple way to switch from the typical unsecure, proprietary, bloated with thousands useless applications operating system to a secure one without even installing it.

    1. Hi Boyska,

      Thanks for that clarification. I have appended your comments to the Freepto section of the article.

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