By Timothy Gamble (February 7, 2019)
You know, or at least have heard, that you should protect your information. You may have even heard the would "encryption." But, what exactly is encryption? And how do you do it? Do you need awesome tech skills or expensive software? This article will quickly give you a basic understanding of encryption, and what you may need to encrypt, as well as reveal an easy and free way even non-techies can use encryption.
What is encryption? Very simply, encryption is a way to "scramble" information stored on your computer, laptop, USB key (memory stick), or other electronic device so that no one without the encryption password can read it. So, if someone steals your laptop or you lose your USB key, they cannot read the files that are encrypted on it, even if they otherwise can get into your device. There are several different methods and standards for encryption, but there is no need to understand the technical specifications in order to use encryption.
What needs to be encrypted? How much of your information you decide to encrypt is up to you. I personally only encrypt personal information of a sensitive nature - tax and financial records, insurance information, medical information, my master list of passwords and pin numbers, contact lists, back-up copies of important documents such as birth certificates, CC permits, deeds, titles, driver's licenses and passports. I also encrypt certain "prepper" information that might reveal aspects of my prepping that I don't want to be public knowledge, such as planned bug-out locations, or guns & ammo, food storage and medical supply lists, among others.
I see no need to encrypt my music files, old photos, or even most of the prepper-type videos, articles, and ebooks I've downloaded. In fact, probably less than 10% of my computer files are encrypted.
Why encrypt important information? Privacy is important. ID theft has become a $20 billion a year industry in the United States. Then there is the government, Big Tech, large corporations, political & social activists, snooping employers, and even nosy neighbors that want to know everything about you, even (especially) the stuff that is absolutely none of their business. Preppers and survivalists also should be concerned about operational security. There are lots of legitimate reason to protect your data.
Are there drawbacks to encryption? There is one, and its potentially a huge drawback. If you forget or lose your password, there is no way to recover it. No one will be able to send you a link to change your password. Even the encryption software company or your favorite IT guy will not be able to recover or change it for you. If you cannot figure out your password, you will be locked out of your encrypted data forever.
Also, its worth noting that the encryption is only as strong as your password. Don't use an obvious or easy-to-guess password, such as your mother's or wife's maiden name, your dog's name, your social security number, or even "password." Many security experts now suggest using a random sentence as your password, such as "IhatepurpleeggssaidSam" (that one is "I hate purple eggs said Sam" without the spaces) - make it something that you'll remember but no one else is likely to ever guess.
There is a lot of encryption software out there, much of it you have to buy. For years, I used Rohos software, which has both a paid and free version. The free version has less bells and whistles and you are limited, last time I checked, to two gigabytes of encryption (which actually should be plenty for most folks). Rohos worked very well for me, and it does let you create a hidden partition to hide your encrypted data (but that is not really necessary, in my opinion).
An Easy, Free Alternative
I recently discovered that 7-Zip archive software allows for password-protected full AES-256 encryption. That is one of the encryption standards that I mentioned earlier. All that you really need to know is that it is considered one of the absolute best.
Archive software, such as 7-Zip, is used to compress, or zip-up, files (and extract them later) in order to save memory space. Using 7-Zip to create and password protect encrypted files is easy, even for non-techies. Simply follow these steps:
1- If you don't already have 7-Zip, you can download and install it on your computer. You can get it at Major Geeks (a software site that I have used for years and trust). Go to https://www.majorgeeks.com/files/details/7_zip.html to get it. Again, it is free.
2- Once it is installed, navigate to the folder containing the files and folders that you want to encrypt. Select the files and folders that you want to encrypt, perform a right-click on them, click 7-Zip from the menu, and then click the "Add to archive" option. This works on your Windows-based desktop, laptop, or any USB key (memory stick). 7-Zip compresses and encrypts all files within any folder you select. I simply keep most of my sensitive files in the same folder, and encrypt/decrypt that folder as needed.
3- At the Add to Archive dialog box, you can either choose the default name in the top box, or type in a new name for the folder or file, and choose the destination for the encrypted file (the ... button to the right of the top line). Make sure the Archive format (next box down) is set to 7z or zip.
4- In the same dialog box, you add a password in the Encryption dialog in the right-column about halfway down, where it says Password and Re-enter Password. You need to remember this password! Just below that, make sure the Encryption method is set to AES-256. Then click Okay. 7-Zip will then zip-up the encrypted file and place it wherever you choose in step 3. Depending on the size of the files and your computer's speed, this way take anywhere from a couple of seconds to several minutes.
5- You have now created an encrypted file. At this point, you may want to delete/shred the original folder and start using the encrypted folder exclusively (make sure the password for the encrypted folder works first, of course). You may move this encrypted file around, place it on a USB key, make copies of it, or whatever you want to do.
6- To open and use the encrypted files, just right click the encrypted file, select 7-Zip, select Open archive, and the 7-Zip file manager will pop up, and use it to open the encrypted file with your password by choosing the file/folder you want, clicking on Extract (green dash), clicking Okay, then entering your password.
A final note: It is possible to accidentally delete files encrypted by this method the same way you may accidentally delete your non-encrypted files, so pay attention to what you're doing! Remember, if you accidentally delete something from your computer, you can usually recover it from your recycle bin.
I use and highly recommend GorillaDrive USB Flash Drives. They are designed to be pressure / impact resistant (up to 250 psi), heat resistant (up to 225 degrees F), and water resistant (up to 65 feet). Although they list freeze resistance at 32 degrees F, mine did survive outside overnight in below freezing weather (mid 20s), when I accidentally left it on top of my car's roof. I've been using Gorilla Drives for more than six years and have never had one fail.
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