Tails Guide

To log-in SecureDrop and retreived messages sent by sources, the journalist must be using the Tails operating system. The admin must also use Tails to access the Journalist Interface and create new users.

If you followed the SecureDrop Installation instructions correctly, you should have already created a journalist Tails USB and an admin Tails USB and enabled the persistence volume on each. If you have not, or need to create another journalist Tails USB for a second journalist, follow the steps below.

If you already know how to boot the admin Tails USB or the journalist Tails USB with persistence, you can skip down to the step ‘download the repository’.

Note that for all of these instructions to work, you should have already installed the main SecureDrop application. It is also required that you use Tails version 2.x or greater.

Installing Tails on USB sticks

Tails is a live operating system that is run from removable media, such as a DVD or a USB stick. For SecureDrop, you’ll need to install Tails onto USB sticks and enable persistent storage.

We recommend creating an initial Tails Live USB or DVD, and then using that to create additional Tails Live USBs with the Tails Installer, a special program that is only available from inside Tails. You will only be able to create persistent volumes on USB sticks that had Tails installed via the Tails Installer.

The Tails website has detailed and up-to-date instructions on how to download and verify Tails, and how to create a Tails USB stick. Here are some links to help you out:

Note for Mac OS X users manually installing Tails

The Tails documentation for manually installing Tails onto a USB device on Mac OS X describes how to copy the downloaded .iso image to a USB stick in Section 4, “Do the copy”. This section includes the following dd invocation to copy the .iso to the USB:

dd if=[tails.iso] of=/dev/diskX

This command is very slow. In our testing, it took about 18 minutes to copy the .iso to a USB 2.0 drive. You can speed it up by changing the arguments to dd like so:

dd if=[tails.iso] of=/dev/rdiskX bs=1m

Note the change from diskX to rdiskX. This reduced the copy time to 3 minutes for us.

Configure Tails for use with SecureDrop


Creating an encrypted persistent volume will allow you to securely save information in the free space that is left on the Transfer Device. This information will remain available to you even if you reboot Tails. Instructions on how to create and use this volume can be found on the Tails website. You will be asked to select from a list of persistence features, such as personal data. We require that you enable all features.

Start Tails and enable the persistent volume

When starting Tails, you should see a “Welcome to Tails” screen with two options. Select Yes to enable the persistent volume and enter your password. Select Yes to show more options and click Forward. Enter an Administration password for use with this specific Tails session and click Login.

Download the repository

The rest of the SecureDrop-specific configuration is assisted by files stored in the SecureDrop git repository. To get started, open a terminal and run the following commands to download the git repository. Note that since the repository is fairly large and Tor can be slow, this may take a few minutes.

cd ~/Persistent
git clone https://github.com/freedomofpress/securedrop.git

Passphrase Database

As mentioned in the installation documentation, we provide a KeePassX password database template to make it easier for admins and journalists to generate strong, unique passphrases and store the securely. Once you have set up Tails with persistence and have cloned the repo, you can set up your personal password database using this template.

You can find the template in tails_files/securedrop-keepassx.xml inside the securedrop repository. Note that you will not be able to access your passwords if you forget the master password or the location of the key file used to protect the database.

To use the template:

  • Open the KeePassX program
  • Select File, Import from..., and KeePassX XML (*.xml)
  • Navigate to the location of securedrop-keepassx.xml, select it, and click Open
  • Set a strong master password or choose a key file to protect the password database
  • Click File and Save Database As
  • Save the database in the Tails Persistent folder

Set up easy access to the Journalist Interface

To complete setup of the Admin Workstation or Journalist Workstation, we recommend using the scripts in tails_files to easily configure Tor to access the Journalist Interface.

Navigate to the directory with the setup scripts and begin the installation by typing these commands into the terminal:

cd securedrop/tails_files/
sudo ./install.sh

Type the administration password that you selected when starting Tails and hit enter. This installation script does the following:

  • Downloads additional software
  • Installs a program that automatically and persistently configures Tor to access the SecureDrop servers and interfaces, by adding HidServAuth values to /etc/tor/torrc.
  • Sets up desktop and main menu shortcuts for the Journalist Interface and Source Interface
  • Sets up SSH host aliases for mon and app
  • Updates your Ansible inventory file to run the playbooks over Tor in the future
  • Makes it so that Tails installs Ansible at the beginning of every session

If you are missing any files, the script will exit with an error. If you’re running this script as an admin, the entire setup should be automatic.

If you’re running the script as a journalist, you will need the .onion addresses for each interface, provided to you by the admin.

We use an “authenticated” Tor Hidden Service so that adversaries cannot access the Journalist Interface, providing a layer of defense-in-depth which protects the Journalist Interface even if there is a security vulnerability in the web application, or if the journalist’s username, password, and two-factor token are stolen. The extra configuration that is required is handled by this script.

Our install.sh sets up Tails to work with SecureDrop every time you login. As long as Tails is booted with the persistent volume enabled then you can open the Tor Browser and connect to the Journalist Interface as normal.

Create bookmarks for Source and Journalist Interfaces

If you want, you can open the browser and create bookmarks for the Source and Journalist Interfaces. Navigate to the site you wish to bookmark, select Bookmarks and Bookmark This Page, give the site a useful name (e.g. Source Interface), and click Done. Tails will remember the bookmarks even if you reboot.