If your laptop was lost or stolen, how bad would that be? Yep, really, really, bad. You need to protect yourself and your files, just in case the laptop falls into the wrong hands. That's where laptop encryption comes in...
Protect Your Laptop With Encryption
Most people have lots of data on their laptop that they absolutely do not want a thief to get hold of: identification info such as social security number; usernames and passwords for bank and stock trading accounts; credit card numbers; names, addresses, and personal info of family and friends; business secrets; and maybe even some things you wouldn't want to appear in the local newspaper.
Securing your laptop with a logon username and password is not enough. Logon passwords are frequently lost so there are plenty of fast, easy ways to defeat or change such things. See my article Windows Password Reset to learn just how safe you're NOT if you've been relying on a logon password for laptop security.
A much better idea is to encrypt your data so that only someone who knows the encryption key can read the data.
What is Encryption?
Encryption changes data with a complex mathematical algorithm so that it cannot be read without first being decrypted. Encryption software uses a string of characters called an encryption key to derive a pattern of changes it makes to your data. If you enter the key into the encryption software again, it can figure out how to reverse the encryption to make the data usable. The principle of encryption and decryption is simple but there are many considerations for choosing and using encryption software.
Some encryption algorithms - ways of calculating encryption patterns - are better than others. Any encryption can be cracked, given enough time and effort. The trick is to make cracking encryption not worth a thief's effort, while keeping it simple to use legitimately. For consumers and many corporate users, the Pretty Good Privacy encryption software strikes just the right balance.
Encryption and decryption take time and computing resources, so there's a trade-off between security and performance. If you encrypt your entire hard drive, every read/write operation will take a little longer. So many users choose to encrypt only the most sensitive data on a laptop drive. Software such as PGP lets you encrypt an entire drive; selected partitions; specific folders; or individual files.
Another option is Microsoft's BitLocker, a data security and encryption feature included in Vista Enterprise and Ultimate, and Windows 7. Bitlocker will prevent a laptop thief from accessing the encrypted hard drive, even if they use the trick of booting up the laptop with another operating system, or move the hard drive to another computer.
Generally, encryption keys stored in hardware devices are harder for thieves to crack than those stored only in software, which can be manipulated in RAM memory. The Trusted Platform Module (TPM) is a specification for such hardware-based encryption that is widely implemented on computers including many laptops. Check your laptop's features and user manual and enable TPM if it is present.
Laptop encryption can cause you delays while traveling internationally. Customs inspectors often power up laptops to make sure they are working computers and not dummy cases disguising bombs. If they encounter encryption, they may suspect you are hiding something (which you are, of course). That can lead to a private interview, demands for your encryption key, and hours-long inspection of your entire hard drive. We live in that sort of world now, unfortunately.
Got something to say about laptop encryption tools? Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 9 Dec 2009
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Laptop Encryption (Posted: 9 Dec 2009)
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Most recent comments on "Laptop Encryption"
09 Dec 2009
In my opinion, the easiest implementation of laptop encryption is TrueCrypt
10 Dec 2009
Yes truecrypt. Absolutely free and in my experience better tha PGP as it has a few extra features such as an option of 2 passwords for each file, 1 to hide the important info and 1 that opens not so important data. Also it leaves no evidence of being an encrypted file as pgp does. Only encrypt what is necessary and name it as a jpg, mp3 or an avi file depending on the size. This will speed up border crossings.
11 Dec 2009
Kewl... but when you enter the USA and many other countries and they want to SEE what you have on your laptop, you either give them the password that UNlocks everything for their viewing pleasure OR they can just confiscate your laptop... maybe forever... and the inspection is done out of your sight (you may be in a detention room, all blue and stainless steel) and they can also install program(s) that will "call home" in case they want to see what else you do with your lappy... Altho I don't have any "secrets", just to have my right to privacy in my papers violated offends me. So encrypt all you want for your fellow office folks, but it doesn't work for TSA.
11 Dec 2009
In addition to TrueCrypt, I've been "playing" with Sophos' Free Encryption: http://www.sophos.com/products/free-tools/sophos-free-encryption.html
14 Dec 2009
In this day and age it helps to think ahead. I travel extensively and my entire boot drive is encrypted using TrueCrypt plus all sensitive data is also encrypted using the hidden partition aluded to earlier. Before I cross a border I boot up the old laptop and then put it to sleep or into hibernation so when I need to open it I simply hit the power button and "poof" there is a working system. Not once have I had to go further than this. Now it also helps when crossing a border to have everything at your finger tips so YOU don't cause unnecessary delays which tends to irk most border guards. Make them wait needlessly and they just may reciprocate.
14 Dec 2009
Encrypting laptop drives with Truecrypt works flawlessly. Steve Gibson from grc.com did a podcast on the truecrypt whole disk encryption, which was very informative. He also conducted some disk performance tests, which showed that Truecrypt volumes provide higher data thruput than a native drive. He attributed the performance gain to low-level drivers that are written better than the native Windows drivers.
I highly recommend the solution.
15 Dec 2009
I used Truecrypt...until it hosed my partition. Fortunately, I use an excellent backup system, and was able to restore everything. Software encryption is not particularly useful, as a single glitch (such as ever-ubiquitous static electricity) can hose your entire hard drive, as it did my Windoze partition. Hardware encryption is equally inconvenient, but for a different reason. What if you lose the device (a card or actual key for examples) that decrypts your system?
Ergo: encryption security is *false* security. Fear of terrorism is simply an *excuse* for our gov't to acquire more and more highly personal data from harmless citizens. Today, it's the airports...tomorrow: trains, buses, and maybe even elevators. Ford help us all!
15 Dec 2009
Bob, You mentioned TPM but you didn't tell anyone what TPM means! Might make for a good geekly update....
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sorry, TPM is Trusted Platform Module. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trusted_Platform_Module
18 Dec 2009
Bob, You mentioned some windows encryption software. What about the new encryption feature offered when you install Ubuntu 9.10 (home folder encryption)?
22 Dec 2009
I recommend AlertBoot Full Disk Encryption, it works great , you can see it at alertboot.wordpress.com and its only $12.95/month and easy to install
20 Feb 2010
The Trusted Platform Module (TPM) is part of Trusted Computing. Trusted Computing is supposed to make your data secure. Secure to who? Not you. Don't use Trusted Platform Modules or Trusted Computing. Stay away from them.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Also, don't eat clams.
28 Jul 2010
Hi, I thought I was doing the right thing by encrypting important files on my laptop, I used the windows encryption. Now my laptop is damaged, I can get the hard drive but I cannot open the files that I encrypted, is there any way around this?
EDITOR'S NOTE: It's hard to answer without knowing what version of Windows you had, and which encryption method was used.