The uniqueness of MAC addresses introduce two types of potential issues for Tails users, in particular if the MAC address can be linked to the user's identity:

  1. Geographical location tracking: A time-stamped log of a MAC address ties a device to a certain location at a particular time. If the device's owner is known, his or her movements are also known. In case an unknown owner, the tracked movements leak information about the owner, which eventually may lead to identification.

  2. Identify Tails (or Tor) users: If the usage of Tails (or Tor) can be fingerprinted on the network (despite other measures taken), and the owner of a device is known, it can be determined that the owner also is a Tails (or Tor) user.

Spoofing the MAC address is the natural solution. Unfortunately, in some cases MAC spoofing may cause network connection issues or even raise alarms; care should be taken to prevent MAC spoofing in such situations.


While some of the following concerns are related to MAC spoofing (or very similar in spirit) they are not covered in this feature.


IMEI numbers is another unique modifier affecting mobile network devices (e.g. 3G, but not Wi-Fi) that is very similar to MAC addresses and can be used by adversaries in similar ways. Given this similarity we'd like to deal with IMEI spoofing (or similar) in this feature but the lack of proper tools prevent us from doing it properly.

Pre-OS network activity

It should be noted that we cannot do anything against network activity caused at BIOS time, such as Intel AMT, beyond urging users to disable such features (if possible, like it is for Intel AMT).

Profiling based on chipset/driver particularities

It's possible to profile the particular chipset and/or driver used by a device based on the active probing algorithm used, and its parameters (e.g. channel probe order, how many probes sent per channel, time spend per channel). See for instance the paper A Characterization of Wireless NIC Active Scanning Algorithms.

Dealing with this may be impossible, or at least require re-writing all Linux wireless drivers so that the parameters can be changed so we cannot practically deal with this issue at this point.

Threat model

Adversary capabilities

The adversary's capabilities are assumed to be:

  1. Omniscient wireless snooping of when and where (via triangulation) all MAC addresses are used. Also access to Time-stamped logs of the presence of MAC addresses on all wired networks (think compromised routers and/or ISP:s). [AdvCapSniff]

  2. Has access, on specific request, to all user/customer records and surveillance data of any public network. [AdvCapRecords]

  3. Knows who owns which MAC address according to the last traceable transaction (e.g. credit card trail). Cash purchase, trade, trash salvaging or theft are ways to potentially avoid this but the adversary can interrogate the previous owner to obtain that information if remembered (or at all known). [AdvCapOwners]

Adversary goals

We assume an adversary whose goals are the following, which all happens on a global, omniscient level thanks to AdvCapSniff:

  1. Monitoring of when and where a particular MAC address with a known owner is used. In other words, monitoring of an individual's geographical movement while using a certain device (thanks to AdvCapOwners). [AdvGoalTracking]

  2. Dragnet-style logging of when and where MAC addresses with unknown owners are used for large-scale social graphing and profiling which leaks information owners' identities. [AdvGoalProfiling]

  3. Identify Tails (and Tor) users. If Tails (or Tor) usageAdv can be fingerprinted, then that fact is documented about a particular individual (thanks to AdvCapOwners). [AdvGoalIdTails]

  4. Identify MAC spoofing individuals. We assume that our adversary has bought into the "nothing to hide" argument, which makes such suspicious behaviour valuable information. [AdvGoalIdMacSpoof]

Tails user goals

  1. Hide geographical movement, i.e. prevent AdvGoalTracking and AdvGoalProfiling. [AvoidTracking]

  2. No unspoofed usage of Tails (or Tor), i.e. prevent AdvGoalIdTails. [AvoidIdTails]

  3. Not raising alarms on the network, i.e. prevent AdvGoalIdMacSpoof, but also avoid alarming the local administrators (imagine a situation where security guards are sent to investigate an "alien computer" at your workplace, or similar). [AvoidIdMacSpoof]

  4. Avoid network connection problems due to MAC address white-listing, fixed ARP tables, hardware or driver issues, or similar. [AvoidConnectionProbs]

Use case analysis

Below we analyse how MAC address spoofing relates to each user goal for the given situation.

Using Tails at home

First, note that the user's relation (owner, family member's, friend's, work's, borrowed, etc.) to the computer running Tails doesn't matter; the location is already directly related to the user's identity. Similarly, because of this, MAC spoofing is of very limited value for both AvoidTracking and AvoidIdTails value.

MAC spoofing could hinder AvoidIdMacSpoof if detected by the ISP's hardware (i.e. no trusted router in the way). Similarly, ISP-provided hardware may employ some sort of MAC address white-listing (e.g. only X unique ones are allowed) that can prevent AvoidConnectionProbs.

Summary: MAC spoofing should be avoided but isn't terribly dangerous if enabled.

Using Tails at a friend's place

Using your computer

MAC spoofing should be enabled for both AvoidTracking and AvoidIdTails. AvoidIdMacSpoof won't be your problem but your friend's (which isn't a problem at all unless you're there spoofing all the time). AvoidConnectionProbs can be problematic for the same reasons as in "Using Tails at home".

Summary: Enable MAC spoofing!

Using any other computer

Since the computer you use isn't tied to you, AvoidTracking and AvoidIdTails aren't relevant. AvoidIdMacSpoof won't be your problem but your friend's. AvoidConnectionProbs can be problematic for the same reasons as in "Using Tails at home".

Summary: MAC spoofing should be avoided but isn't terribly dangerous if enabled.

Using Tails at a restricted public network

Access is restricted to registered users' identities only. We use "registration" a bit loosely, but example of networks like these are:

  • paid-for access when there's a money trail (e.g. credit cards).
  • captive portals requiring logging in with an identity-tied account.
  • locations requiring a identity-tied key card (e.g. university computer labs and workplaces) to access.

This should probably also cover otherwise unrestricted networks that snoops on users in other ways, e.g. a library with video camera surveillance.

Using your computer

Since the user is registered for network access, both AvoidTracking and AvoidIdTails are hard to get. However, AdvCapRecords requires explicit targeting (more expensive), while AdvCapSniff isn't, and MAC spoofing would defeat the latter, so it's not without merit.

AvoidIdMacSpoof could be problematic if your registered presence on the network is correlated to constantly new MAC addresses. A quite likely situation for this case is that you login via some captive portal, and these often use your MAC address for access control purposes, so a log of which you have used

AvoidConnectionProbs is a problem if your MAC address becomes part of your registration, and is assumed to not change (maybe a place where you have to pay for each device you connect with). This seems pretty far-fetched, though.

Summary: There's no easy choice here but in most scenarios AvoidTracking is probably more valuable than AvoidIdMacSpoof, so MAC spoofing should be enabled.

Using a public computer

Since the computer isn't tied to you, MAC spoofing does nothing to AvoidTracking and AvoidIdTails. It could cause problems to both AvoidIdMacSpoof and AvoidConnectionProbs.

Summary: MAC spoofing should be avoided but isn't terribly dangerous if enabled.

Using Tails at an open public network

Access is completely open, and no kind of registration is needed.

Using your computer

MAC spoofing should be enabled for both AvoidTracking and AvoidIdTails. Such a network should expect to see many unique MAC addresses daily, and be ready to deal with it, so AvoidIdMacSpoof and AvoidConnectionProbs are of no consequence.

Summary: Enable MAC spoofing!

Using a public computer

Same as using a public computer at a restricted public network.

Summary: MAC spoofing should be avoided but isn't terribly dangerous if enabled.


The strong requirement of enabling MAC spoofing in a few cases, and the low risk of keeping it enabled even in the cases where it should be avoided, warrants for making this feature enabled by default, with the possibility to opt-out.

Leak prevention

It is conceivable that NICs may send packets before the user has made a decision about whether to use MAC spoofing or not. In fact, someone on tails-dev@ alluded to this being possible for wireless NICs although without any references (this may refer to so called "active probing"; see section below). If this is the case it at the very least implies that we must enforce the MAC spoofing setting as early as possible.

However, since we (obviously) cannot foresee the user's decision we get a problematic time frame between when a network device is added during early boot and when the user makes the decision later on. Enforcing a default MAC spoofing setting immediately when a network device is added, that then potentially is reversed when the user makes the decision, leads to problems in some scenarios if we assume these early leaks happen:

  • If MAC spoofing is enabled before the user has made the decision, a fake MAC address would leak before the user made the decision, and the decision was to disable MAC spoofing. The sudden switch of MAC address may result in a breach of AvoidIdMacSpoof.

  • If MAC spoofing is disabled before the user has made the decision, the real MAC address would leak even if the user wanted MAC spoofing enabled, which leaks to breaches of AvoidTracking and AvoidIdTails. The sudden switch of MAC address may result in a breach of AvoidIdMacSpoof.

The real solution is therefore to eliminate the problematic this time frame completely by preventing any network devices from being enabled at all until the decision has been made, and have the MAC spoofing setting applied immediately when the device is added.

Active probe fingerprinting

No protection against this is implemented yet

There's an opportunity for an adversary to achieve AdvGoalTracking and AdvGoalProfiling due to "active probing" performed by NetworkManager for Wi-Fi connections. This puts AvoidTracking at risk.

Wi-Fi has both a passive and active scanning mode. Passive scanning, as the name suggests, passively listens for broadcasted wireless networks, which is entirely safe. Active scanning, however, actively sends probes for any known networks. In our case these are the saved connections in NetworkManager, so this turns especially problematic when persistent NM connections are used; the (potentially long) list of networks actively probed for can be used as a fingerprint by an adversary, breaching AvoidTracking.

While this has nothing to do with MAC spoofing, it does strongly affect the (arguably) most important user goal of this feature, namely AvoidTracking. Because of this, active scanning should be disabled in NetworkManager when MAC spoofing is enabled: #6453.

How to spoof the MAC address

Spoofing the OUI part of the MAC address

This is currently not implemented. See the Limitation: Only spoof the NIC part of the MAC address section below.

The first three bytes of a MAC address determine the Organizationally Unique Identifier (OUI) which in practice determines the chipset's manufacturer, who generally owns several OUIs. Spoofing the OUI part in a way that satisfies our threat model is not straightforward because of AvoidIdMacSpoof since multiple, large categories of OUIs violate that user goal:

  • Unregistered OUI so it's not used for any real device.

  • Registered OUI that was never used for any device.

  • Registered OUI that is used for special purpose devices unlikely to be used on most networks, e.g. NICs only used in ATMs, vending machines or embedded devices.

  • Registered OUI used for NICs in normal computers but for a different type of NIC than the device being spoofed. This is only relevant when this difference actually can be detected by the adversary, like with wired vs. wireless.

  • Registered OUI used for NICs in normal computers but they were manufactured decades ago.

  • Registered OUI used for NICs in normal computers but whose distribution is limited to some restricted, geographical area.

  • Registered OUI used for NICs in normal computers but that simply is very rare.

Great care should be taken when picking the OUI to avoid these categories. The whole point is to randomly pick an OUI that the adversary expects to see. In particular the OUI should be one used for common, consumer oriented hardware.

Spoofing the NIC part of the MAC address

The last three bytes of the MAC address are meant to distinguish individual devices among those with the same OUI. These should simply be selected at random, with the exception that we never allow it to stay the same, even if done in a fair, random way. Theoretically speaking this leaks up to 24/2^24 bits of the NIC part of the real MAC address per Tails session but in practice the complete NIC part is leaked to adversaries that do not anticipate MAC spoofing, which is much worse.


The current implementation leaves the OUI part unchanged, and only spoofs the last three bytes of any network device's MAC address immediately after it is added by udev. Furthermore, to deal with potential network leaks before the user has chosen whether to enable MAC spoofing or not, the addition of network devices is delayed until after Tails Greeter knows the user's final decision.

Network blocking

As suggested in the "Leak prevention" section, we block all network devices' modules from being loaded until the user has made the decision about whether to enable MAC spoofing or not. The way we do this is by generating a list of all network device modules during build time, and add these to a modprobe.d-type blacklist. An implication of this is that in-kernel drivers and modules installed after build time will not be in the blacklist and hence are not supported. In Tails Greeter's post-login script (when we know the user's decision) we unblock the network by simply removing that list, and then we have udev "re-probe" for network devices and load their modules.



We use udev as the trigger that hooks MAC address spoofing. Because of that, it happens for every Ethernet device automatically, as early as possible (i.e. immediately after it's added), so even if there's some kind of weird leak before a device is up:ed the real MAC address shouldn't leak.

Hook: config/chroot local-includes/etc/udev/rules.d/00-mac-spoof.rules

Discarded approaches

All other triggers that were considered do not deal with the "early" leaks issue, in addition to other reasons for being discarded:

  • ifupdown hook: A if-pre-up hook would probably work but since we use NetworManager the exact behaviour is blurred and not particularly well-documented. It doesn't feel robust for this reason. Hence, we leave the macchanger package's built-in way to spoof MAC addresses disabled.

  • NetworkManager hook: NM doesn't trigger events equivalent to if-pre-up, so this isn't possible. See the commented parts in: /etc/NetworkManager/dispatcher.d/01ifupdown. Note that NetworkManager 0.9.10 introduces pre-up hooks, but they're used to "allow scripts to execute before NetworkManager announces connectivity to applications" (according to a blog post by Dan William), that is, after network activity (e.g. DHCP requests) has already occurred.

  • NetworkManager's own support for MAC address randomization: see #11293 for details.

  • systemd integration: We did not use systemd yet back when we made this design decision.

  • NetworkManager plugin: While this certainly would have a nice impact outside of Tails, the added maintenance burden makes it less attractive.

MAC changing tool

The tool used to change the MAC address is simply macchanger, mostly because it's in Debian (where the known vulnerabilities are patched) and macchiato isn't (and it's not as well tested, yet). macchanger is used in a very straightforward way, so if we want to switch tool in the future it's a simple task.

Helper scripts: config/chroot local-includes/usr/local/lib/tails-spoof-mac

Limitation: Only spoof the NIC part of the MAC address

To put the categories listed in the "Spoofing the OUI part of the MAC address" section into context, let's look at macchanger's options. Among the ones that some how modifies the OUI part of the MAC address (-r, -a and -A) all have a significant probability of picking an OUI from the problematic categories that violate the AvoidIdMacSpoof user goal.

Another MAC spoofing tool, macchiato, takes this to the next level by maintaining lists of "common enough" OUIs for different categories of devices so a less suspicious choice of OUI can be made. However, the verification of the OUI being "common enough" lands on the submitter, so an ignorant (not necessarily malicious) submitter can easily get an uncommon OUI into the lists. See e.g. the "Contribute" section of its homepage, or the author's request on reddit.

Another issue is that macchiato's lists do not take into account that some devices are pretty much only used in some geographical areas. Note that collecting such data probably is orders of magnitude harder than macchiato's current quest, and that the user interface would be further complicated (in Tails we'd have to ask for the current geographical location in Tails Greeter, or similar). The real impact of this should be evaluated; it's very likely that the benefits still outweigh this risk.

To end with, macchiato's lists are very small with only ~20 OUIs in most of the relevant categories as of the current Git state (commit 90fa147d), 2014-04-25. The exact impact of this is not well-understood. This is probably the main blocker for Tails to switch to macchiato and dare saying we satisfy the "Spoofing the OUI part of the MAC address" requirement from above.

What remains is to only spoof the latter three bytes, the NIC part. We know it isn't a perfect strategy. The more uncommon the OUI of a user's device is, the more it can be used for tracking the user, i.e. the more it violates the AvoidTracking user goal. At least this comes with some uncertainty compared to many of the impossible choices of OUI listed above, which would guarantee widespread violation of AvoidIdMacSpoof among Tails users, so this seems like a reasonable tradeoff at the moment.

MAC spoofing fail safe

For any network device, the MAC address is recorded both before and after the actual MAC spoofing. If the values are equal, or if they could not be obtained, we fail closed by going into "panic mode" for the device. This means that the device is down:ed, and its module is unloaded and blacklisted. If the network device's interface still exists after this, networking is completely disabled by shutting down NetworkManager. The user is notified of which device was the culprit, and whether the module was unloaded, or if the network was completely disabled.

Note that we treat the perfectly fine macchanger behaviour of randomly picking the real MAC address as a failure. Since we randomise the lower 3 bytes of the MAC address there's a 1/2^24 chance for this happening for each device. To make it a bit less frequent (!) we repeat the MAC spoofing until a new address is obtained, with up to three tries.

Script: config/chroot local-includes/usr/local/lib/tails-spoof-mac

Connection failure detection

This section deals with AvoidConnectionProbs. The goal is to somehow identify connection errors that are related to MAC spoofing, and notify the user when this happens.

Note: the implementation described below had to be disabled:

Due to lack of hooks into NetworkManager's connection error handling we currently use a simple monitoring script that's started when MAC spoofing is enabled. It scans the NetworkManager unit's journal for the error message patterns expected when the connection fails due to MAC spoofing. When such a pattern is found, a notification is shown to the user, stating that the connection problem may be MAC spoofing related. Due to the uncertainty and lack of information available for this approach, there certainly will be false positives.

At the moment this script only deals with wireless connections. It successfully distinguishes between MAC-spoof related errors and errors when entering the wrong passphrase, so no false positives in that (relatively common) case.