A lot of security features have been implemented upstream at the kernel level (ASLR, removal of /dev/kmem, /dev/mem protections, various stack and heap hardening features, /proc or /sys not leaking sensitive information, etc.), most of them being slowly integrated into Debian. This is the reason why the Tails kernel has only a few more security features enabled than the stock Debian kernel.

We pass a few kernel parameters on the boot command line and /proc/sys to increase security at little to no cost.

See #11143 and #10951 for the discussion that lead to this choice of parameters. Most of what follows come straight from what "cypherpunks" wrote there.


Fill freed pages and heap objects with zeroes.

Also enables poisoning for some freed memory. Poisoning writes an arbitrary value to freed objects, so any modification or reference to that object after being freed or before being initialized will be detected and prevented. This prevents many types of use-after-free vulnerabilities at little performance cost.


Disables the merging of slabs of similar sizes. Many times some obscure slab will be used in a vulnerable way, allowing an attacker to mess with it more or less arbitrarily. Most slabs are not usable even when exploited, so this isn't too big of a deal. Unfortunately the kernel will merge similar slabs to save a tiny bit of space, and if a vulnerable and useless slab is merged with a safe but useful slab, an attacker can leverage that aliasing to do far more harm than they could have otherwise. In effect, this reduces kernel attack surface area by isolating slabs from each other. The trade-off is a very slight increase in kernel memory utilization. slabinfo -a can be used to tell what the memory footprint increase would be on a given system.


Enables sanity checks (F) and redzoning (Z). Sanity checks are self-evident and come with a modest performance impact, but this is unlikely to be significant on an average Tails system. The checks are basic but are still useful both for security and as a debugging measure. Redzoning adds extra areas around slabs that detect when a slab is overwritten past its real size, which can help detect overflows. Its performance impact is negligible.

An additional note: any time slub_debug= is put in the kernel command line, slab_nomerge is implied. But having slab_nomerge explicitely declared can help prevent regressions where disabling of debugging features is desired but re-enabling of merging is not.


Virtual syscalls are the obsolete predecessor of vDSO calls. Unfortunately, both vsyscall=native and vsyscall=emulate (the default) have a negative security impact, with the latter a little less so. Namely, they provide a target for any attacker who has control of the return instruction pointer, which is increasingly common these days now that attackers need to resort to ROP and similar attacks which target a process' control flow. The impact of this is with reduced compatibility, however only legacy statically compiled binaries and old versions of glibc used vsyscalls. All software on modern Tails uses vDSO instead. If for some reason a program does try to use a vsyscall, the process will crash with a memory access violation, and won't bring the whole system down.


Mostly useful for systems with ECC memory, setting mce to 0 will cause the kernel to panic on any uncorrectable errors detected by the machine check exception system. Corrected errors will just be logged. The default is mce=1, which will SIGBUS on many uncorrected errors. Unfortunately this means malicious processes which try to exploit hardware bugginess (such as rowhammer) will be able to try over and over, suffering only a SIGBUS at failure. Setting mce=0 should have no impact. Any hardware which regularly triggers a memory-based MCE is unlikely to even boot, and the default is 1 only for long-lived servers.


Enables page allocator freelist randomization.


Linux kASLR is known as not being particularly strong, but one has to start somewhere. See self-protection.txt for details.

kASLR is enabled by default in the Debian kernel since 4.7~rc7-1~exp1 (CONFIG_RANDOMIZE_BASE and CONFIG_RANDOMIZE_MEMORY) so there is no need to enable it with a specific kernel parameter.


Some off-the-shelf malware exploit kernel addresses exposed via /proc/kallsyms so by not making these addresses easily available we increase the cost of such attack some what; now such malware has to check which kernel Tails is running and then fetch the corresponding kernel address map from some external source. This is not hard, but certainly not all malware has such functionality.

For this reason, we also make sure to purge /boot/System.map.

vm.mmap_rnd_bits, vm.mmap_rnd_compat_bits

These settings are set to the maximum supported value in order to improve ASLR effectiveness for mmap, at the cost of increased address-space fragmentation.

kernel.kexec_load_disabled = 1

kexec is dangerous: it enables replacement of the running kernel.


As per https://www.kernel.org/doc/html/latest/admin-guide/hw-vuln/mds.html, if the CPU is vulnerable, this:

  1. enables "all available mitigations for the MDS vulnerability, CPU buffer clearing on exit to userspace";
  2. disables SMT which is another avenue for exploiting this class of attacks.


Randomize kernel stack offset on syscall entry.

This is recommended by https://kernsec.org/wiki/index.php/Kernel_Self_Protection_Project/Recommended_Settings and enabled by default in more recent Debian kernels Debian bug #1016056.

net.core.bpf_jit_harden = 2

Turn on BPF JIT hardening, if the JIT is enabled.

This is recommended by https://kernsec.org/wiki/index.php/Kernel_Self_Protection_Project/Recommended_Settings.