Learn all about encryption tools for Windows with our jargon free guide
What are encryption tools?
Encryption is the process of putting information (often computer data) into a coded form. Many people use their computers to store and work with data such as financial records, insurance documents or legal paperwork. While using a computer to work with information like this is very convenient, it also makes it potentially very easy for a thief or snoop to steal, copy and redistribute the information should your computer fall into the wrong hands. This is where encryption tools become useful. Using an encryption package it is possible to lock data away so that only those who know the correct password and/or key file can unlock and work with the data.
If you read our guide to file shredders, you may well have thought “file shredding is all well and good, but I’m not too keen on the idea of shredding my important financial documents”. This is where encryption comes in. When you are not working on your files, they can be locked away by the encryption tool until you want to work with them again. Furthermore, if you use an encrypted disk or partition, unless the attacker works out your password, he/she cannot use a data recovery tool to look for files you deleted (so long as the files were on the encrypted disk at the time you deleted them).
Symmetric and asymmetric keys
Encryption is a complex field of computer science, but that doesn’t mean that all encryption software is hard to use. Having said that, we want to get this little bit of techie jargon out of the way. This article is concerned with symmetric key encryption tools, basically this means that there is one key or password that unlocks your data. When you are done working with your data you simply click “lock” and keep your password safe until the next time you want to edit your top secret dossier. Asymmetric encryption is usually used to secure e-mail. With an asymmetric encryption system you have two keys, one public and one private. You send your public key to your friend and keep your private key secret at all times. Your friend then encrypts a secret message using your public key and sends it back to you. This message can then only be decrypted using your private or secret key. This solves the problem of having to send the password to the message over a public channel, where a snoop could potentially steal it. Clever stuff we are sure you will agree, if you are curious to find out more, check out the Wikipedia article here.
What encryption tools are available?
There are many encryption packages available for Windows. This article will focus on two of the most popular, Truecrypt and Microsoft Bitlocker.
Truecrypt is a free open-source disk encryption tool for Windows Vista/XP/2000 and Linux. Truecrypt can create secure ‘container files’ on your hard drive in which you can store your private data (kind of like a digital safe on your hard drive), or you can encrypt a whole hard disk if you so desire. The program is open source, which means that anyone in the world can inspect the program/computer code that goes into making Truecrypt. This is extremely beneficial because it means that security professionals around the world can check for errors or omissions in the program. Don’t think for a moment that because Truecrypt is free that it is inferior. Open source encryption tools like Truecrypt are free because the people who write them are the same people that use them day in and day out. If you are smart enough to write your own encryption tool, you are smart enough to know that the only way you are going to get it right is with the help of other security professionals. Even companies which produce paid for encryption tools have been forced to make their program code public so that it can be peer-reviewed for security and completeness by professionals all over the world.
Microsoft Bitlocker is an encryption tool available only with Windows Vista Enterprise and Ultimate editions. With the theft of computers (especially portable computers) on the up, Microsoft decided it had better do something more to protect its corporate customers from unscrupulous thieves who might try and inspect the hard drives in the computers they stole. To this end, they came up with Bitlocker, a means to encrypt the entire Windows drive on a machine running Windows Vista Enterprise or Ultimate edition.
Bitlocker can be used on any modern PC that can run Windows Vista Enterprise or Ultimate editions and boot from a USB device ( such as a USB pen drive or keyring ). To get the highest level of protection however, a special chip called a “Trusted Platform Module” or TPM is needed. Very few computers have this special chip, so if Bitlocker is important to you make sure you check the specification on your next PC. When a user boots a PC protected with Bitlocker encryption the TPM (and/or a key on your USB device) is used to verify that everything is in order and then the disk is decrypted. If a thief takes your disk and tries putting it in another computer to access your files, all he/she will see is seemingly random bits of data. For extra security you can require the entry of a PIN number during start up too (as well as your regular Windows password when Windows finally boots).
Deploying Bitlocker is a little complicated and perhaps best left to an IT professional. If you plan on trying yourself, be sure to take a backup of all your data before you start. Finally, keep in mind that deploying Bitlocker (or Truecrypt full disk encryption) not only locks out thieves from inspecting your hard drive but may make it more difficult for a computer repair specialist to carry out their work too.
We don’t currently plan to create any tutorials on using Bitlocker because we believe that its installation is best left to the IT pros. If you want to learn more about Bitlocker, this Microsoft Technet article is a useful place to start.
Phew, we hope this article hasn’t bewildered you too much! Encryption and computer security is a complex subject, but just because it is doesn’t mean you have to ignore it. With identity theft and related crimes on the increase, can you afford to ignore it? Keep checking Top-Windows-Tutorials.com and we’ll help you stay one step ahead of the crooks!