We’ve all got that one friend who’s, frankly, terrible at computer security.
It can be pretty painful watching them close 20 pop-up ads and spammy notifications every time the computer turns on. You can’t help but groan when you see the adware toolbars taking up real estate in the browser.
And you don’t even want to know when they last updated their antivirus program — if there’s even one installed.
But there may come a day when you need to use your friend’s computer. And when that day comes, all of those security vulnerabilities will become very much your problem.
That is, unless you’re prepared with a copy of TENS OS.
Small, secure and super-portable, TENS is designed to let you safely use any computer on any network. Just boot it up and start performing all your usual tasks — no need to worry about malware, hackers or other threats.
Here’s the scoop on TENS OS and why it’s an essential part of your security toolkit.
What Is TENS OS?
Trusted End Node Security, or TENS, is an OS with a unique origin: the US Department of Defense.
TENS started as Lightweight Portable Security (LPS) in 2011. It was originally managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Anti-Tamper Software Protection Initiative, but was given its own office in 2016.
The DoD created TENS for use by government officials, who often need to work securely from non-government computers. To prevent critical data from being compromised, federal employees use TENS rather than a computer’s preinstalled OS.
Is TENS OS Safe?
It’s understandable if you’re unsure about TENS due to its government origins. The US government, after all, isn’t exactly known for respecting digital privacy.
But TENS is open-source, which means that anyone is free to inspect the code. So far, nobody has reported any backdoors, government spyware or other evidence of snooping in the OS.
The TENS official FAQ addresses these concerns as well, though somewhat flippantly. It promises that no tracking or data harvesting takes place and emphasizes that nobody is forcing you to use the OS.
What Makes TENS OS Different?
TENS is a live OS — it runs from a CD, DVD or USB drive rather than a hard drive.
This allows you to run it on just about any Intel-based computer without installation or configuration. A minute or two is all you need to boot up and get to work.
Just keep the portable media with you and you’ll be able to use TENS on any computer you want.
TENS lacks hard drive drivers, so it never accesses a computer’s hard drive. Any compromised files or programs on the drive won’t affect TENS or any data transmitted while using it.
So if you’re using a computer that’s been infected with keyloggers, Trojans or other malware, TENS will still be safe. Nothing on the machine’s hard drive can impact TENS — it’s simply not possible.
If the computer’s main OS has unpatched security vulnerabilities, you’ll be safe while using TENS. Hackers won’t be able to exploit those vulnerabilities to interfere with your TENS usage.
Since it uses RAM rather than a hard drive for memory, all evidence of your TENS session disappears when you shut down.
Next time you boot, you’ll get a totally fresh TENS with no indication of your previous activity. Anyone using the computer in the future won’t be able to dig up evidence of your data.
And because TENS is based on Linux, it’s not vulnerable to the innumerable viruses and exploits that plague Windows. Its Linux base also means that it’s open-source and easily vetted for security, unlike macOS.
What Are the Different Versions of TENS OS?
Four different versions of TENS are available: TENS-Public, TENS-Public Deluxe, TENS-Professional and Bootable Media.
TENS-Public and TENS-Public Deluxe are free; anyone can download them from the official TENS website. The Public Deluxe version differs in that it includes the LibreOffice software suite.
Non-DoD federal agencies use TENS-Professional, which is customized for each agency by the TENS developers. It may include features like VPN preconfiguration, custom applications, and government-grade encryption software.
Bootable Media is used exclusively by the DoD. As you might expect, details about this version of TENS are scarce; presumably, it includes extra security features and is preconfigured for DoD tasks.
We’ll be reviewing TENS-Public and TENS-Public Deluxe, as they’re the only versions that are freely available.
What Does TENS OS Come With?
TENS isn’t intended to be an everyday OS, so it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles you’re used to. But it does come with most of the basic software you’d need on a secure OS.
TENS also comes with DNSCrypt, which encrypts your DNS queries over OpenDNS. This protects you from DNS leaks, which can reveal your IP address and web activity to hackers.
Other programs include FreeRDP (a remote desktop viewer), galculator (a calculator), mtPaint (an image editor and paint program), xPDF (a PDF viewer) and PCMan (a file explorer). Leafpad serves as a basic text editor and gpicview lets you view photos and other images.
More technical users can make use of OpenSSH (secure shell), minicom (a terminal emulator), Citrix Receiver (a Citrix client) and NetworkManager (exactly what it says it is).
The Public Deluxe version includes LibreOffice, an open-source Microsoft Office substitute. It’s got all the word-processing, spreadsheet-editing and slideshow-creating features of MS Office.
TENS-Public Deluxe also includes Adobe Reader for viewing PDFs.
But by far the most notable TENS software is the Encryption Wizard. This easy-to-use program lets you quickly encrypt files and folders with AES-128 or AES-256.
All you need to do is drag and drop files into the Wizard and let it work its magic. It’s surprisingly user-friendly and a boon to anyone working with encrypted files.
Unfortunately, third-party programs won’t work on TENS. If you need to use Tor, Chrome or other non-included software, you’re out of luck.
Who Should Use TENS OS?
If you’re a DoD or other government employee, using TENS is a no-brainer. Use it when working from home or with an unsecured computer or network to keep your data safe.
But anyone concerned about security will get plenty of use out of TENS.
Using a public network or computer at a library, coffee shop or airport? Running TENS will prevent you from being impacted by past and future users’ sketchy activity.
That means banking, telehealth, and other sensitive applications will stay secure and private no matter where you are.
If you need to view a potentially dangerous website or run a dubious program, use TENS. Any damage the site or program does will only affect the current TENS session — reboot and you’ll be back to normal.
TENS can also be used to revive an old or damaged computer that can’t boot to its normal OS. Booting to TENS will allow you to go online and restore other basic functionalities.
Can I Use a VPN with TENS OS?
TENS protects your computer in many ways, but it can’t totally protect all of your internet traffic. For that, you need a virtual private network or VPN.
VPNs lets you encrypt your traffic, reroute it anywhere around the world and change your IP address. This prevents your ISP, network admins, hackers, websites and even governments from spying on your activity.
What TENS does for your computer and files, a VPN does for your internet traffic.
But unfortunately, most VPNs require you to install software to use them. At a minimum, you need a generic VPN client, which the free versions of TENS don’t come with.
There’s one way around this, though: use a VPN with a browser extension.
You’re free to install extensions in Firefox while using TENS. You’ll need to reinstall them every time you boot TENS, but they’ll work (and if you use Firefox’s Sync feature, you can automate the process).
VPN browser extensions aren’t as full-featured as standalone VPNs. They encrypt your traffic with HTTPS rather than AES, and server selections may be more limited.
But the extra encryption and IP-masking capabilities make them valuable for anyone concerned with online privacy.
We recommend NordVPN, whose Firefox extension includes a malware blocker and full WebRTC leak protection. You can tunnel your traffic through any of NordVPN’s 59 countries.
Ivacy VPN also provides a Firefox extension with WebRTC leak protection and extensive server choices. You can also switch it to streaming mode to access Netflix if you need a break from your secure business.
TENS OS is a portable Linux distro that you can run instantly on just about any computer. It’s secure enough for government purposes yet simple enough that anyone can use it.