Tor at the Heart: Qubes OS

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Qubes OS

by Michael Carbone and Andrew David Wong

Qubes OS is a security and privacy-oriented free and open source operating system that provides you with a safe platform for communications and information management. Its architecture is built to enable you to define different security environments (or "qubes") on your computer to manage the various parts of your digital life, including safely using Tor.

"If you're serious about security, @QubesOS is the best OS available today. It's what I use, and free. Nobody does VM isolation better."
--- Edward Snowden

Qubes OS allows you to safely manage the different communications, data, and identities in your digital life in securely compartmentalized qubes. All of these qubes are integrated into a single desktop environment with unforgeable colored window borders so that you can easily identify applications and windows from different security environments.

Some features of Qubes OS include:

Safer anonymous browsing

Qubes incorporates Whonix to provide a safer way to use Tor Browser, by compartmentalizing the Tor Browser and Tor process in separate qubes. This means that if the Tor Browser is exploited, the attacker still cannot discover your real IP address, because the Tor Browser and its qube do not know your real IP address. Moreover, that compromise cannot spread from Tor Browser to the Tor process, since they are isolated in different qubes, so any other Tor-related activities you have in other qubes remain secure and private.

Enforce Tor use for non-Tor-aware applications

Once a qube is set to use the Tor network, all network traffic that leaves it is forced to go through Tor. This means that no matter which applications you use, they will not be able to leak your real IP address, even if they are not Tor-aware.

All software and OS updates through Tor

Qubes allows users to download all software and OS updates through Tor, which means that network attackers can't target you with malicious updates or selectively block you from receiving certain updates. In addition, downloading all updates through Tor preserves your privacy, since it prevents your ISP and package repositories from tracking which packages you install.

Robust and safe networking

In addition to easily running non-Tor-aware programs through the Tor network, you can -- at the same time -- have other qubes go through VPNs or be non-networked, for instance to enable easily accessible but offline storage of sensitive information like your password manager. Common attack vectors like network cards are isolated in their own hardware qube while their functionality is preserved through secure networking and firewalls.

Secure communications

Qubes is integrated with existing secure communications tools like Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) to provide security-in-depth and reduce user error. With Split-GPG functionality, a compromise of your email client does not enable an adversary to access your private PGP key.

Safely interact with untrusted media

You can open an untrusted attachment from your email client, and any potential malicious payload in the document is isolated to a separate disposable, non-networked qube. No information from that session can be sent to the attacker, since it is not connected to the internet, and after the document has been read, the entire domain is deleted. You can convert the PDF to a “trusted PDF” that is known not to be malicious, which you could then share with colleagues or save in an offline Documents qube for later reference. In the same way, a potentially malicious DOC file can be opened in a disposable qube that enables the user to edit the file, save it, and send it without providing an opportunity for potential computer compromise.

Windows integration

Many users still rely on Windows-based programs for their work. Qubes enables them to do so securely.

Physical security

Qubes also protects your computer against some physical attacks. If an adversary plugs a malicious USB device into your computer while you're not watching, it isn't game over. Qubes isolates the entire USB stack from the rest of the system. And if you want to dual-boot, or if your computer is seized at the border and then returned, you can tell whether a malicious bootloader was installed, so you know not to input your decryption password.

Smooth integration of qubes

Integrated file and clipboard copy and paste operations make it easy to work across various qubes without compromising security. The innovative Template system separates software installation from software use, allowing qubes to share a root filesystem without sacrificing security (and saving disk space).

There are many different ways to contribute to Qubes, including creating artwork, reporting bugs, editing documentation, making financial contributions and more. If your company would like to license Qubes, please contact the Qubes team.

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