As we hear about more companies upgrading their security, we hear a lot about encryption. Whatsapp provided end-to-end encryption in April and Facebook just released it for their Messenger app. Encrypted files are only able to be read by the sender or the designated receiver. To everyone else, encrypted files just appear to be code that doesn’t make sense.
If you fail to encrypt files on your PC, phone, or tablet now, you will regret it later, as pretty much everyone who gets the chance to access those files will be able to read them. Imagine you go on a vacation and you find yourself victim of theft and all your valuables, including your phone and laptop were stolen, and they contain valuable work information. Unfortunately, this happens all too often and the problem is that any files and data on your devices are private and contain sensitive information. While you may not save financial records on your laptop or mobile device, you may allow web browsers to remember your password. If you keep your email logged in, your information is vulnerable to anyone who gets ahold of your physical device. However, if your device is encrypted, nobody will be able to access the information within it unless you have a weak password or screen lock. Security should not be an afterthought, it should be used as preventative measure for all your devices.
Encryption on Windows
To take a step beyond password protecting your phone or PC, you can take several steps to encrypt your information at the folder and file level. First off, if someone has physical access to your devices, they can most likely access the information on it even with password protection. All an attacker has to do is insert a Boot CD with an external CD-ROM and power up the laptop. The boot CD bypasses the Windows OS to include any passwords, which gives attackers access to everything on the hard drive. To protect files in this scenario, your individual files will remain private if you encrypt them first.
This may sound like a daunting task but you don’t have to encrypt everything. To save time, encrypt only the sensitive files you would not want anyone to open. For instance, would you rather encrypt your family recipe for the best stuffing or holiday cookies or your financial records and tax returns?
You can use a third party encryption tool, or you can protect your entire hard drive by using BitLocker available with Windows 7 and Vista available with Ultimate and Enterprise editions. If you do not have these, you can use a free third party utility such as DiskCryptor to protect your entire hard drive without having to reformat it.
If you want to try encrypting your files with a utility already built into Windows 10, you can start with Drive Encryption. Go to your System Settings and click on System > About and turn Drive Encryption on if your device is designed to support it. You will need to set the encryption up with your Microsoft account. If you do not see it under About, your device may not support it. If you are running Windows 7 or 8, you may have to use a third party application such as DiskCryptor mentioned above, VeraCrypt or TrueCrypt. To check if your device has BitLocker, go to your Control Panel and simply click on “BitLocker Drive Encryption.” If BitLocker is turned off, simply turn it on with the notification next to your drive.
VeraCrypt is a successor to TrueCrypt and is free for Windows and Linux. VeraCrypt supports AES, TwoFish, and Serpent encryption ciphers. The code in Veracrypt is not completely open source but can be reviewed for those true techies. For the common user, however; VeraCrypt is an easy tool to use and protects your files by encrypting them when not in use and decrypting when you need to use them.
Use a compression utility for infrequently accessed files and folders
If you have files and folders you need to archive because you don’t access them frequently, you can compress the folder and encrypt the files with a password. When you need to access them again, simply open the folder and enter the password. For instance, this method is useful if you track your monthly spending and finances for tax purposes and only need to access the folders at tax time. Windows XP comes with its own compression utility that can be used for this purpose. Windows Vista and 7 users will need a third-party application.
Considerations when encrypting or password protecting your files and folders
Nothing is ever 100% protected. For every third-party application and method of encryption, a tool or utility exists to get around it and break the encryption. The encryption methods explained above will help protect your data from the majority of attackers. Always backup your essential files, even those you password protected, as they are could still be deleted. If an attacker can make his or her way into your files, they can still delete them even if they cannot access them. External hard drives are an excellent way to backup files and folders. Keep the external drive as your backup or primary drive for sensitive files and folders.