If you want the privacy advantages of using a secure Linux-based OS like Tails but don’t want to use Linux all the time, an easy (and free) solution is to run Tails inside a virtual machine. Here’s how.
These instructions should work for pretty much any Linux-based OS. But we have written them for Tails, since that is one of the most popular (and best) privacy-focused operating systems. (Whonix is another good choice.)
Here’s what to do to set up Tails in a virtual machine using VirtualBox, a popular and free virtualization application that runs on all major platforms:
- Download the Tails ISO image from here. For extra security (and to avoid potential technical issues) you can follow the steps on that page for verifying your ISO file. Doing so will assure that the file you download is a complete, uncorrupted copy of the image.
- Install VirtualBox by downloading and running the appropriate installer for your OS from here.
- Start VirtualBox, then select Machine>New from the toolbar menu.
- Give the new virtual machine whichever name you want (“Tails OS” would be a good choice), choose Linux as the type and choose Other Linux (32-bit) as the version. Click Next.
- On the next screen, assign the virtual machine at least 1024 megabytes of memory. If your computer has a lot of RAM, feel free to increase this allocation. Click Next.
- On the hard drive screen, select the option for not adding a hard drive. Click Create. A box will pop up with a warning about not creating a hard drive; click Continue. (Tails doesn’t need a hard drive because it doesn’t store any information permanently to disk.)
- Back at the VirtualBox main screen, select the virtual machine you just created, then click Settings. Under the Storage tab, navigate to the “Empty” entry under the Controller: IDE section and click it. Then, in the right pane, click the CD icon and select the option to choose a CD/DVD disk file.
- When prompted, navigate to the location of the Tails ISO image file that you downloaded in step 1.
- Go back to the VirtualBox main screen and start your virtual machine. It will boot to the Tails ISO image.
That’s it. With this configured, you can launch Tails inside a virtual machine whenever you want to browse or use apps anonymously or privately.
Meanwhile, the rest of your computer will remain unchanged. And you don’t have to reboot when you want to use Tails.
In case it’s not clear, though, you should understand that only your activity inside the Tails virtual machine is secure and private. Running Tails inside a virtual machine doesn’t protect or anonymize anything in the host operating system (that is, the one that your physical computer runs).
Still, setting up a virtual machine like this makes it easy to use Tor or other secure apps that are built into Tails whenever you want, without having to make major modifications to your system.