Whonix vs Tails (Differences You Must Know in 2024)

Whonix vs Tails

Whonix and Tails are two operating systems focusing on privacy and anonymity. Choosing the right one for your needs is essential to ensure your online activities are secure and protected.

If you’re trying to decide which one to use, we’ll dive into the Whonix vs Tails debate to make your decision easier.

We'll cover each tool's essential features, strengths, limitations, and trade-offs so you can evaluate which one best fits your particular use case and threat model.

Whether you’re a privacy-conscious user, journalist, activist, or CEO, understanding the differences between these operating systems is essential.

Ready to jump into the Tails vs Whonix debate? Let’s begin.

What Are Whonix and Tails?

Whonix and Tails are secure operating systems designed to preserve privacy and anonymity, but they approach this goal differently.

Whonix Overview

Whonix is a secure, anonymous operating system based on the Debian Linux distribution. It was founded on January 11, 2012, with the goal of simplying the use of Tor, and was originally called TorBOX.

As the project expanded, it was renamed to AOS (short for anonymous operating system), a standalone operating system designed for online anonymity and privacy protection.

By the end of 2012, the project had adopted its current name, Whonix, which is available for all major operating systems.

Whonix consists of two virtual machines: the Whonix gateway, which handles Tor operations and anonymity functions, and the Whonix workstation, which runs all applications.

This split setup enhances security by keeping application processes isolated from the anonymity functions the gateway component performs.

Whonix Anonyminity Architecture

Whonix Key Features

Network and application isolation: Whonix uses a two-VM setup, with the internet connection routed through the Tor network via the gateway VM, ensuring isolation and security.

Pre-installed, pre-configured applications: It comes with various security-focused applications, such as the Tor Browser and Thunderbird, all pre-configured with privacy settings.

Advanced security and anonymity features: Stream isolation and Kernel Hardening enhance security and anonymity.

Flexibility and compatibility: Based on Debian GNU/Linux, it supports various virtualization platforms and offers extensive customization options.

Tails Overview

Tails (The Amnesic Incognito Live System) is designed to provide quick, temporary, and secure access to a computer system without leaving any traces.

It's a live operating system that you can start on almost any computer from a USB drive or DVD. Like Whonix, Tails also routes all its internet connections through the Tor network.

Tails was first released in 2009, building on the foundation of the Incognito live CD, and gained significant attention when endorsed by Edward Snowden in 2013 as a critical tool for privacy and anonymity.

Its key feature is amnesia. In fact, Tails doesn't use your host computer's hard disk and instead runs entirely from the external drive automatically erasing any traces of your activity from the system at shutdown.

Tails also includes a suite of pre-configured tools for secure communication, including encrypted emails, instant messaging, and tools for handling and encrypting documents.

Tails Key Features

Amnesic operating system: Tails is designed to leave no trace on the computer after shutdown. It runs entirely in RAM and securely erases all data upon session end.

Anonymity and privacy tools: Integrates Tor Browser with essential security extensions and tools like Metadata Cleaner and KeePassXC to ensure privacy and anonymity.

Encrypted communication and data protection: OpenPGP supports tools like VeraCrypt, GnuPG, and Thunderbird for secure data storage and communication.

Accessibility and multilingual support: Tails offers extensive multilingual support and accessibility options, including the GNOME Screen Keyboard.

Similarities Between Whonix and Tails

Although Whonix and Tails are different operating systems, they share some similarities.

Both operating systems use the Tor network to anonymize your internet activity, ensuring that neither the destination server nor network observers can easily trace your IP address or location.

How Tor Works

Whonix and Tails have strong privacy and security features to protect you against surveillance, tracking, and other cyber threats.

Whonix and Tails come with numerous pre-installed security configurations and tools to protect you immediately. Things like encryption tools and various network security measures are all configured to provide strong security without requiring additional setup.

Both operating systems are open source. This is crucial for trust and security, allowing independent experts to audit and verify both systems' security and privacy features.

Differences Between Whonix and Tails

While Whonix and Tails share some similarities, they also have clear differences. Let's examine the key factors that set them apart.

Operating Structure

Whonix utilizes a two-VM setup, where the gateway handles all Tor connections, and the workstation handles your activities. This creates strong isolation that protects against various network attacks.

Tails is designed as a live operating system that you can boot from a USB stick or DVD. It focuses on leaving no trace on the host machine after shutdown, enhancing privacy in temporary environments.

Persistent vs. Ephemeral Usage

Generally, Whonix is used persistently. Changes and configurations are maintained across sessions, making it suitable for long-term, regular use.

Tails is inherently amnesic, designed to forget all your activities upon shutdown unless explicitly saved in encrypted persistent storage. This makes it ideal for sessions where no trace is desired.

Application and Environment Focus

Whonix's design allows a wide range of applications to run anonymously and access online content/services privately.

Tails is equipped with essential tools for secure communication and data handling out of the box. It’s tailored if you need quick access to a secure and anonymous system with minimal setup.

Whonix and Tails Use Cases and Design

We'll present some of the best use cases for each system, though these only represent a few instances where their strengths shine through.

Whonix: Best Scenarios for Use

Whonix is ideal if you require a private and secure environment for extended periods. It's especially helpful in sensitive, restricted settings where it's critical to protect your privacy and anonymity when browsing. This might include:

  • Researchers handling sensitive data require assurances against IP leaks and protection from network-based attacks.
  • Journalists communicating with confidential sources in regions with restrictive internet surveillance require secure, private communication channels.
  • Organizations requiring a stable, secure system for processing confidential transactions over extended periods without changing the physical or network environment.

In these situations, Whonix offers strong security by separating network traffic across virtual computers, guaranteeing that even if one component is hacked, the system as a whole is not compromised.

Encrypting communications and concealing your IP protects privacy, as in sending a sealed letter with your name hidden. Less emphasis is placed on anonymity because it’s assumed that even though your identity may be known, your actions remain private.

Tails: Best Scenarios for Use

Tails is particularly useful if you require a portable, anonymous, secure operating environment. Ideal use cases include:

  • Activists working from public or shared computers must ensure no traces of their activities remain on the hardware.
  • Business travelers who access sensitive information on provisioned laptops/workstations while ensuring their activities and data are wiped at the session's end.
  • Whistleblowers or individuals in highly surveilled regimes, where operating without leaving digital footprints is crucial.

Tails excels in scenarios where complete anonymity is required since it leaves no trace of your activity: it's like mailing a postcard without a return address.

Using Tor and amnesic features strengthens security, shielding your actions from outside threats.

Setting Up and Using Whonix and Tails

Next, we'll guide you through setting up each system and showcasing the loaded desktop interfaces. Note that we're demonstrating only the initial setup process and not every setting needed to ensure increased privacy, anonymity, or security.

Whonix Set Up

Let’s see how to get Whonix set up.

You’ll need to ensure you have VirtualBox installed on your system, whether that’s Windows, macOS, or Linux. You can download VirtualBox from here.

Next, you must download Whonix with Xfce Graphical User Interface or command line interface. We’ll be using the GUI version.

Once installed in VirtualBox, start the Whonix-Gateway and then the Whonix-Workstation.

Whonix in VirtualBox

Gateway Set Up

Follow these steps to set up the Whonix-Gateway.

In the gateway, you’ll see a screen asking you to click on “Finish” to perform a system check.

Whonix Setup Wizard

Next, you’ll be shown a connection wizard with three choices. You can “Connect,” “Configure,” or “Disable Tor.”

For most situations, you’ll want to choose “Connect;” otherwise, if the network is censored or you need to use a proxy to get online, select “Configure.” Then, click on “Next.”

Whonix Anon Connection Wizard

Once it finishes the connection, select “Finish.”

Whonix Tor Bootstrapping

The gateway will now perform a system check and display the results. We see a warning about updating our packages.

Whonix Systemcheck

We can do this from a terminal with the command:

upgrade-nonroot

Whonix Terminal

Workstation Set Up

Follow these steps to set up the Whonix-Workstation.

Click on “Finish” to run a system check on the workstation.

Whonix Setup Wizard

Whonix will now begin its checks.

Whonix Workstation Systemcheck

As you can see in the image below, we received a warning about updating the packages. To do so, open a terminal and enter the command upgrade-nonroot.

Whonix Systemcheck

Whonix Desktop

Let's look at the Whonix desktop and see what it looks like.

Whonix Desktop

Whonix uses the Xfce desktop environment, which is lightweight, efficient, visually appealing, and user-friendly.

The Xfce desktop features a top panel with quick access to essential features.

  • Applications Menu
  • Window Minimize/Restore
  • File Manager
  • Terminal
  • Browser

The desktop icons provide easy access to the file system, your home directory, and the trash bin.

Tails Set Up

Now, we’ll show you how to set up Tails.

After downloading Tails onto a USB drive and booting from it, we'll guide you through setting everything up for use.

A “Welcome to Tails!” screen is presented upon boot up.

Welcome to Tails!

Here, you can set your language, keyboard layout, and format. You can also create persistent storage, saving things like WiFi passwords, files, bookmarks, and more on the USB drive. Tails creates an encrypted partition for this password-protected storage.

If you want to use persistent storage, toggle the switch on, and you’ll be asked to set a password.

While you can change additional settings, Tails advises that the default settings are safe for most situations.

These include setting an administrative password, not using a MAC address anonymizer, using offline mode, and using an unsafe browser.

Tails Additional Settings

Next, you’ll be shown the Tor Connection screen, which asks if you want to connect to Tor automatically or hide that you’re connecting to Tor on your local network.

You can also configure a Tor bridge if your connections to Tor are blocked. Selecting “Connect to Tor automatically” is recommended for most instances.

Select “Connect to Tor” to continue.

Tails Tor Connection

Once the connection is completed, you’ll see the following screen. Here, you can start the Tor browser or view the Tor circuits.

Tails Start Tor Browser

Tails Desktop

Next, we'll provide an overview of the desktop interface.

Tails Desktop

The Tails desktop environment is a customized version of GNOME, designed to be user-friendly and functional. On the Tails desktop, you’ll find:

  • Activities: A menu for accessing all the different applications and windows you have open, along with search functionality.
  • Applications: This lists all available applications categorized for ease of use.
  • Places: A quick-access menu for navigating the filesystem, including directories such as Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures, and Videos.
  • Top Panel: Here, you'll find a clock, open onion circuits, display settings, connections, and more.
  • Workspace Switcher: You can switch between different workspaces in the bottom right corner.

Ease of Set Up

Now that we have shown you how to set up both, we’ll review Tails vs Whonix pros and cons.

Whonix Setup Process

  • Setting up Whonix is more involved initially. You must download and install two virtual machine images: the Whonix gateway and the Whonix workstation.
  • Configuration includes setting up the virtual machines within VirtualBox, allocating resources, and making initial network settings.        
  • Once installed, starting Whonix is simply a matter of starting both the gateway and workstation VMs.

The advantage is persistence. In fact, after the initial setup, starts are quick and easy, retaining your settings and data.

Tails Setup Process

  • Tails is designed for quick, temporary use. You download the ISO and flash it to a USB drive or burn it to a DVD.
  • You simply boot from the USB or DVD, and you're taken straight into the Tails environment.
  • Each time you start Tails, it's a fresh slate unless you’ve configured persistent storage.

The process is quick every time but doesn’t retain system changes unless explicitly saved in the persistent storage.

Community Support

Both Whonix and Tails offer exceptional support, including active communities.

Whonix Support

Whonix maintains an active user forum where you can seek technical support, discuss features, and report bugs. A documentation wiki provides guidance on using Whonix, including setup, configuration, and troubleshooting.

Tails Support

Tails does not have an official community forum, but an active subreddit dedicated to the Tails OS allows users to assist each other. You can also email the Tails support team or use the XMPP chat room for direct assistance. The Tails project also offers excellent documentation, including step-by-step instructions for using the operating system.

Whonix and Tails Security Features

Let's examine some of each operating system's security features, limitations, vulnerabilities, and update and maintenance requirements.

Whonix Security Features

  • Tor circuit building: This is handled by the Tor client on the Whonix Gateway, ensuring that all traffic from the workstation is anonymized.
  • Protection against IP leaks: This feature offers strong defenses against IP and DNS leaks from the workstation, even if compromised.
  • Stream isolation: Implements stream isolation to prevent identity correlation between applications.
  • AppArmor integration: Includes AppArmor by default for mandatory access control, enhancing system security.
  • Keystroke anonymization: In non-Qubes Whonix, keystroke anonymization helps mitigate timing attacks that could identify you.

Whonix's security depends on the underlying security of the host system and the virtualization software used. Complex configurations can lead to user errors, compromising security. Additionally, not all security features may be available or enabled by default.

Whonix provides update notifications to ensure you apply the latest operating system and application updates. To keep Whonix secure, you must maintain and update the VMs gateway and workstation.

Tails Security Features

  • Tor integration: All internet traffic is routed through Tor, similar to Whonix, providing anonymity online.
  • Amnesic feature: Tails leaves no trace on the computer after shutdown.
  • Disk encryption: Supports local disk encryption for persistent storage on USB drives.
  • Cold boot attack protection: Tails has measures to protect against cold boot attacks.

Tails must be restarted to apply updates released as new system versions. Any stored data could be revealed if the persistence feature is enabled and compromised. It cannot protect against physical security limitations such as hardware-based keyloggers or tampering.

Tails features incremental updates, making it easier to apply security patches as they’re released. However, since it’s an amnesic system, updates do not persist across reboots unless applied to a persistent volume. You must regularly download and verify the latest ISO release to upgrade Tails.

Whonix vs Tails: When to Choose Which?

Choosing between Whonix and Tails largely depends on your needs, environment, and the nature of the tasks you intend to perform. Here’s a guide on when to choose which, based on various scenarios.

Regular Users

Whonix: Ideal for those who prioritize security while browsing and can handle the setup of a VM. Great for daily use in one location.

Tails: Suitable if you need secure access on different computers without leaving traces. It’s good for banking or sensitive work on public or shared computers.

Journalists

Whonix: A solid choice for investigative journalists who may need a persistent, secure environment for research over more extended periods.

Tails: This benefits journalists on the ground who need a secure OS that can be booted on any machine. It ensures communication and data confidentiality while leaving no footprint.

Activists

Whonix: Good for activists who operate from a secure location and need to manage or participate in online campaigns over time, ensuring secure communications.

Tails: Ideal for on-the-ground activists needing to use any available hardware while ensuring their activities and data are wiped clean after every session.

Whistleblowers

Whonix: Suitable for those with a secure place to conduct their activities and require a static, private setup for communication.

Tails: Preferred for whistleblowers needing to transfer sensitive information securely and anonymously without leaving traces on personal or work computers.

Privacy-Conscious Individuals

Whonix: Those with a home computer looking to compartmentalize their digital life, using VMs to segregate various online activities.

Tails: Users who want quick, anonymous sessions with the assurance that their activities aren’t stored or recoverable by any third party.

Here's a comprehensive table comparing various aspects of Whonix and Tails.

whonix vs tails

Check this article for a rundown on the Top 5 Secure Operating Systems for Privacy and Anonymity.

Conclusion

Whonix and Tails are very similar privacy-focused operating systems. The best one for you will depend on your needs and preferences.

Whonix is known for its strong isolation of network traffic and applications, making it a good choice for users who prioritize security.

On the other hand, Tails is designed to be more user-friendly and portable, making it ideal for those who value ease of use and anonymity.

If you want to learn more about protecting your privacy and anonymity online, consider joining the StationX Accelerator Program. We offer labs, courses, mentorship, and mastermind groups.

With a StationX membership, you can launch your career or optimize your skill set.

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  • Richard Dezso

    Richard is a cyber security enthusiast, eJPT, and ICCA who loves discovering new topics and never stops learning. In his home lab, he's always working on sharpening his offensive cyber security skills. He shares helpful advice through easy-to-understand blog posts that offer practical support for everyone. Additionally, Richard is dedicated to raising awareness for mental health. You can find Richard on LinkedIn, or to see his other projects, visit his Linktree.

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