The following instructions will lead you through the process of building Tails USB and ISO image with Rake, Vagrant and vagrant-libvirt.


To build Tails you need:

  • Debian 12 (Bookworm) or newer
  • the KVM virtual machine hypervisor
  • at least 1.5 GiB of free RAM
  • storage:
    • 20 GB in $HOME
    • 5 GB in /tmp
    • 5 GB in /var/lib if the system has at least 16 GiB of RAM; else, 20 GB in /var/lib

Setup the build environment

  1. To install everything the Tails build system needs, execute the following command:

    sudo apt install \
        psmisc \
        git \
        dpkg-dev \
        rake \
        libvirt-daemon-system \
        dnsmasq-base \
        ebtables \
        faketime \
        jq \
        pigz \
        qemu-system-x86 \
        qemu-utils \
        vagrant \
        vagrant-libvirt \
        vmdb2 && \
    sudo systemctl restart libvirtd
  2. Ensure your user can run commands as root with sudo.

  3. Ensure your user is in the relevant groups:

    for group in kvm libvirt libvirt-qemu ; do
       sudo adduser "$(whoami)" "$group"
  4. Logout and log back in to apply the new group memberships.

Build Tails

  1. To get the Tails sources and checkout the stable branch, execute the following commands:

     git clone && \
     cd tails && \
     git checkout stable && \
     git submodule update --init
  2. To build Tails USB and ISO images, execute the following command:

     rake build && rake vm:halt

    When the build completes, several tails-* files will appear in the current directory.

You may also want to customize the content of the Tails image before building it.

Finally, you can test your Tails image:

Known issues and workarounds

  • If Vagrant fails to start the Tails builder VM with:

      Call to virDomainCreateWithFlags failed: Cannot access storage file '/path/to/some/file' (as uid:xxx, gid:yyy): Permission denied

    … then you must give the libvirt-qemu user read-access to the path mentioned in the error message. This is often the case if you store your libvirt volumes inside your home, and your home is not globally readable.

  • If Vagrant fails to start the Tails builder VM with:

      Initialization parameters must be an attributes hash, got NilClass nil (ArgumentError)

    … then restart the libvirtd service:

      sudo systemctl restart libvirtd.service

    Finally, try building again.

  • If Vagrant failed to start the Tails builder VM the first time (e.g. because of permission issues or the kvm module not being loaded) it will not automatically run the provisioning script, so you must run rake vm:provision yourself before attempting your first rake build. If that fails, run rake vm:destroy, which removes this half-broken VM, and then start from scratch with rake build or similar.

Build settings

You can customize the build system using two environment variables:

  • ARTIFACTS is the path where the USB and ISO images are stored once the build completes; for example:

  • APT_SNAPSHOTS_SERIALS can be set to specify which time-based APT snapshots repositories will be used as 'latest' during the build, and will set it accordingly in the resulting USB and ISO images if necessary. This can be useful to reproduce a build that did not use tagged APT snapshots. The value must be JSON, for example:

  • To tweak other build settings, use TAILS_BUILD_OPTIONS, a space-separated list of build options documented below.

    For example, you can speed up the build by setting:

     export TAILS_BUILD_OPTIONS="ram"

    This will force the build to happen in RAM.

SquashFS compression settings

One of the most expensive operations when building Tails is the creation of the final SquashFS. It depends on the compression algorithm used:

  • When building from a tag, the SquashFS is compressed using slow but efficient size-wise compression settings (defaultcomp).
  • Otherwise, the SquashFS is compressed using the faster fastcomp settings, unless you specify the defaultcomp build option.

Memory build settings

Tails builds way faster when everything is done in memory. If your computer has enough free memory before you start the virtual machine, it will automatically switch to 'build in RAM' mode.

To force a specific behaviour please set:

  • ram: start the virtual machine with lots of memory, build Tails inside a tmpfs. Build fails if the system is not in a proper state to do so.

  • noram: start the virtual machine with the bare minimum needed memory if not already done, build Tails using the virtual machine hard disk.

Network settings

  • offline: This option will make the build system do its best to not depend on the network, e.g. if you use the VM's caching proxy if will only use cached APT lists and packages. Use this when you do not have an Internet connection.

Git settings

You can force the build system to handle the Git tree in a special way:

  • ignorechanges: allow to make a build that will ignore changes in the Git repository.

    The build system can only work on files that have been committed to the Git repository. By default, it will refuse to start a build in presence of uncommitted changes.

  • nomergebasebranch: by default the base branch is merged before building, and this option overrides that behavior.

Variations useful for testing build reproducibility

These options allow one to vary the build environment in ways that may affect reproducibility of the images:

  • dateoffset=+n, dateoffset=-n: change the virtual machine system time by +n or -n days.

  • cpus=n: allocate n CPUs to the virtual machine. Obviously you should not allocate more virtual CPUs than the number of cores available to the host system. When using Linux, the number of CPUs allocated will default to be the same as the host system.

  • cpumodel=model: type of the CPUs allocated to the virtual machine. See the corresponding libvirt documentation.

  • machinetype=type: type of the QEMU machine; see the output of qemu-system-x86_64 -machine help for available options.

Developer convenience settings

  • keeprunning: do not clean up the builder VM on build success.

  • rescue: implies keeprunning and will also not clean up the build directory, which is useful for investigating build failures and as gateway for useful development tricks. For example, if you have failures in the build process, you might want to enter the chroot at the stage where the build failed. This can be done with:

   rake vm:ssh
   # inside the vm
   sudo chroot "$(ls /tmp/tails-build.* -dt|head -n1)/chroot/"
  • forcecleanup: ensure a new builder VM is used for rake build, and also clean up this VM after the build, no matter if it succeeded or not.

  • cachewebsite=:

    • If set to "yes" (the default, unless building from a tag), enable caching of the built website. The cache is keyed on the input parameters that primarily determine the output of the website build.
    • If set to "no" (the default when building from a tag), build the website from scratch.

HTTP proxy settings

Building Tails requires downloading a little bit more than 2 GiB of data. By default, the build system will configure and use its own HTTP caching proxy in order to speed up the following builds.

We recommend against modifying this behavior, but you can do it with the following build options:

  • extproxy: use the external proxy configured through the http_proxy environment variable. Fail if it is not set.

    • An external HTTP proxy does not save any download bandwidth unless configured in a very special and undocumented way.
    • At least one step of the build does not honor the external proxy settings, so outgoing Internet connections from the build VM must be allowed to go through anyway.
  • vmproxy: use the local proxy configured in the virtual machine even if a local HTTP proxy is set.

  • vmproxy+extproxy: use the local proxy configured in the virtual machine but make it use the external HTTP proxy configured through the http_proxy environment variable.

  • noproxy: do not use any HTTP proxy (broken: #17075).

Verify if the resulting images are reproducible

See verification section.

More information

To know all available Rake tasks, please run rake -T.

More documentation about the build process can be found in the Debian Live Manual.

Details about how this Vagrant build system is setup, see its design page.

Other related pages: