Businesses, websites, and government agencies that store your personal data have a duty to protect that data from hackers. Not that even the best practices and security software can keep the hackers out—they always find a way in.
But if the data is properly encrypted, stealing it doesn’t do the hacker much good. You can up your security game by encrypting sensitive data on your own desktop and laptop computers. We’ve rounded up a collection of products to help you with that project.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, and we will update this story with additional products in the future.
No Back DoorsWhen the FBI needed information from the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, they asked Apple for a back door to get past the encryption.
But no such back door existed, and Apple refused to create one.
The FBI had to hire hackers to get into the phone.
Why wouldn’t Apple help? Because the moment a back door or similar hack exists, it becomes a target, a prize for the bad guys.
It will leak sooner or later.
In a talk at Black Hat, Apple’s Ivan Krstic revealed that the company has done something similar in their cryptographic servers. Once the fleet of servers is up and running, they physically destroy the keys that would permit modification.
Apple can’t update them, but the bad guys can’t get in either.
All of the products in this roundup explicitly state that they have no back door, and that’s as it should be.
It does mean that if you encrypt an essential document and then forget the encryption password, you’ve lost it for good.
Two Main ApproachesBack in the day, if you wanted to keep a document secret you could use a cipher to encrypt it and then burn the original. Or you could lock it up in a safe.
The two main approaches in encryption utilities parallel these options.
One type of product simply processes files and folders, turning them into impenetrable encrypted versions of themselves.
The other creates a virtual disk drive that, when open, acts like any other drive on your system. When you lock the virtual drive, all of the files you put into it are completely inaccessible.
Similar to the virtual drive solution, some products store your encrypted data in the cloud.
This approach requires extreme care, obviously.
Encrypted data in the cloud has a much bigger attack surface than encrypted data on your own PC.
Which is better? It really depends on how you plan to use encryption.
If you’re not sure, take advantage of the 30-day free trial offered by all of these products to get a feel for the different options.
Secure Those OriginalsAfter you copy a file into secure storage, or create an encrypted version of it, you absolutely need to wipe the unencrypted original. Just deleting it isn’t sufficient, even if you bypass the Recycle Bin, because the data still exists on disk, and data recovery utilities can often get it back.
Some encryption products avoid this problem by encrypting the file in place, literally overwriting it on disk with an encrypted version.
It’s more common, though, to offer secure deletion as an option.
If you choose a product that lacks this feature, you should find a free secure deletion tool to use along with it.
Overwriting data before deletion is sufficient to balk software-based recovery tools. Hardware-based forensic recovery works because the magnetic recording of data on a hard drive isn’t actually digital.
It’s more of a wave form.
In simple terms, the process involves nulling out the known data and reading around the edges of what’s left.
If you really think someone (the feds?) might use this technique to recover your incriminating files, you can set your secure deletion tool to make more passes overwriting the data.
Encryption AlgorithmsAn encryption algorithm is like a black box.
Dump a document, image, or other file into it, and you get back what seems like gibberish. Run that gibberish back through the box, with the same password, and you get back the original.
The U.S. government has settled on Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) as a standard, and all of the products gathered here support AES.
Even those that support other algorithms tend to recommend using AES.
If you’re an encryption expert, you may prefer another algorithm, Blowfish, perhaps, or the Soviet government’s GOST.
For the average user, however, AES is just fine.
Public Key Cryptography and SharingPasswords are important, and you have to keep them secret, right? Well, not when you use Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) cryptography.
With PKI, you get two keys. One is public; you can share it with anyone, register it in a key exchange, tattoo it on your forehead—whatever you like.
The other is private, and should be closely guarded.
If I want to send you a secret document, I simply encrypt it with your public key. When you receive it, your private key decrypts it.
Using this system in reverse, you can create a digital signature that proves your document came from you and hasn’t been modified. How? Just encrypt it with your private key.
The fact that your public key decrypts it is all the proof you need. PKI support is less common than support for traditional symmetric algorithms.
If you want to share a file with someone and your encryption tool doesn’t support PKI, there are other options for sharing. Many products allow creation of a self-decrypting executable file. You may also find that the recipient can use a free, decryption-only tool.
What’s the Best?Right now there are two Editors’ Choice products in the consumer-accessible encryption field. One is the easiest to use of the bunch, the other is the most secure.
AxCrypt Premium has a sleek, modern look, and when its active you’ll hardly notice it.
Files in its Secured Folders get encrypted automatically when you sign out, and it’s one of the few that support public key cryptography.
CertainSafe Digital Safety Deposit Box goes through a multi-stage security handshake that authenticates you to the site and authenticates the site to you. Your files are encrypted, split into chunks, and tokenized.
Then each chunk gets stored on a different server.
A hacker who breached one server would get nothing useful.
The other products here also have their merits, of course. Read the full reviews and decide which one you’ll use to protect your files. Have an opinion on one of the apps reviewed here, or a favorite tool we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments.
FEATURED IN THIS ROUNDUP