Computer stolen? Keep your files safe


Date: 7 October 2010

Stolen computerIf your computer, especially a laptop, is lost or stolen, any files on it could be accessed by someone else. That could mean sensitive business information, pictures and other things you wouldn't want made public could be seen by someone else. To protect your files, you can scramble them with encryption. This ensures that nobody other than the person who encrypted the file can view them. Using Windows encryption Windows has some encryption features built in. But before you experiment with them, make sure you know your Windows username and password. You can only view your encrypted files with these details. If you ever lose them, you won't be able to recover your files. (If you don't have a username and password, set one up - encryption is useless without them.) Windows XP Professional and some versions of Windows Vista allow folders and files to be encrypted, but your hard disk must use a particular format. You can either encrypt individual files or entire folders. The easiest way to find out if it’s going to work for your computer is to create a test folder and try encrypting it:

  1. Click the Windows Start menu and choose the My Documents folder
  2. Right-click in the window which opens, then click New folder in the menu.
  3. Type in a name for your test folder and hit Enter. (I called mine 'Secure'.)
  4. Right-click the folder you just created, then click Properties.
  5. Click the Advanced tab or button in the window which opens
  6. Click Encrypt contents to secure data
  7. Click Ok until the Properties window which opened has closed
  8. The name of your new folder should now be shown in green. This means it has been encrypted.

Once you've set up this encrypted folder, any files you save in it will be automatically encrypted. As long as you're logged in to Windows with your username and password, you can access and use the files as usual. But once you're logged off, nobody else can access those files - even if they remove the hard disk from your computer. Alternatives to Windows encryption I have tried a few alternatives to the encryption tools built into Windows. One advantage is that they permit encryption no matter which version of Windows you use. One application that has worked well for me is TrueCrypt. It does have some very technical options, but the simplest setting lets you create a virtual disk drive which is encrypted and can be used as if it were a real disk. It's quite easy to set this up. Just download and install the free software, then follow the steps to create a virtual disk and choose a password. You'll then see a new disk - just like your C: drive - in Windows. Just save everything there to have it encrypted automatically. Summary There are advantages and disadvantages to both these methods of encryption. Using the encryption features built in to Windows is generally more straightforward - assuming you have a version of Windows that includes them, and your hard drive is in the right format. An application like TrueCrypt is a little more complex (but still fairly easy to get to grips with), and can be used with versions of Windows that don't have encryption built in. Finally, with all this talk of encryption, don't forget to take other security measures too. At the very least, back up your files! This article was adapted from a post at zuuMedia Southampton.

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