You've got a secret, perhaps the plan for a new business venture. It's complicated enough you can't just memorize it, so you write it down. But now you worry that someone else might get hold of your secret. What to do? Encrypt it! There are many paths to protect your sensitive files, and ways to share those encrypted files without compromising your security. Just which solution works for you depends on exactly how you'll use your encrypted files. We've rounded up a diverse collection of tools to help you no matter which path you take.
In this roundup, I'm specifically looking at products that encrypt files, not at whole-disk solutions like Microsoft's Bitlocker. Whole-disk encryption is an effective line of defense for a single device, but it doesn't help when you need to share encrypted data.
You can use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, to encrypt your own internet traffic. From your PC to the VPN company's server, all your data is encrypted, and that's a great thing. However, unless you're connected to a secure HTTPS website, your traffic is not encrypted between the VPN server and the site. And of course the VPN's encryption doesn't just magically rub off on files you share. Using a VPN is a great way to protect your internet traffic when you're traveling, but it's not a solution for encrypting your local files.
When 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. As my colleague Max Eddy pointed out in a recent article about Attorney General Barr's ignorance of encryption, "a backdoor is still a door and even a door with a lock on it can be opened."
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.
Back 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 each of these products to get a feel for the different options.
After 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 waveform. 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 beyond what even these techniques can recover.
An 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.
Passwords 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 foreheadwhatever 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. Simple!
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.
Right now there are three Editors' Choice products in the consumer-accessible encryption field. The first is the easiest to use of the bunch, the next is the most secure, and the third is the most comprehensive.
AxCrypt Premium has a sleek, modern look, and when it's 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 multistage 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.
Folder Lock can either encrypt files or simply lock them so nobody can access them. It also offers encrypted lockers for secure storage. Among its many other features are file shredding, free space shredding, secure online backup, and self-decrypting files.
The other products here also have their merits, too, of course. Read the capsules below and then click through to the full reviews to 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.
Pros: Very easy to use. Handles editing encrypted files. Secure sharing using public key cryptography. Secure file deletion. Generates memorable passwords. Secure online password storage.
Cons: Can be risky if you don't ensure local security of your PC.
Bottom Line: AxCrypt Premium makes encryption simple enough for any user, and even offers public key cryptography for secure sharing of encrypted files.
Pros: Renders bulk data breach of cloud-stored files impossible. Authenticates user to server and vice versa. Secure file sharing. Retains past file versions. Secure chat.
Cons: Relatively expensive. If you forget password or security answers, you lose all access. Office integration currently unavailable.
Bottom Line: When storing your sensitive files in the cloud, CertainSafe Digital Safety Deposit Box makes security its top priority, without sacrificing ease of use.
Pros: Encrypted lockers protect files and folders. Secure online backup. Can lock files and folders, making them invisible. File shredding. Free space shredding. Self-decrypting files. Many useful bonus features.
Cons: Product serial number stands in for master password by default. Locked files are not encrypted. Secure backup requires separate subscription.
Bottom Line: Folder Lock can lock access to files for quick, easy protection, and also keep them in encrypted lockers for serious protection. It combines a wide range of features with a bright, easy-to-use interface.
Pros: Offers 17 encryption algorithms. Supports PKI. Secure deletion. Password generator. Encrypts text to/from the clipboard. Command-line operation.
Cons: Awkward, dated user interface. Password generator doesn't work well. Some features described in Help system are absent.
Bottom Line: InterCrypto's Advanced Encryption Package is by far the most feature-rich encryption tool we've tested. But its awkward and dated interface make it one that should be reserved for experts.
Pros: Very easy to use. Can securely share encrypted files. Feature-limited free edition available.
Cons: No secure deletion of unencrypted original files. Lacks a two-factor authentication option. Expensive.
Bottom Line: The new NordLocker encryption tool is an impressive debut from the makers of NordVPN. It's very easy to use, but so far lacks a few important features.
Pros: Can use one to four encryption algorithms. Simple, context-menu-based operation. Can keep passphrase in memory. Secure deletion. Text encryption. Filename encryption.
Cons: Passphrase memory can be a security risk for the careless. Fewer features than some competitors.
Bottom Line: CryptoForge offers a simple, context-menu-based approach to encryption and secure deletion, and it also handles text-only encryption. It's a fine choice for keeping your files safe.
Pros: Many options for hiding encrypted files. Easy to use. Two-factor authentication. Can hide existence of containers. Comprehensive secure-deletion file shredder. Trace remover. Price includes five licenses.
Cons: Combination of hidden container and two-factor authentication can destroy data. Portable encrypted containers only portable on systems with Steganos installed.
Bottom Line: Steganos Safe creates secure encrypted storage for your sensitive files. It's very easy to use, and it offers some unique options for maintaining privacy and secrecy.
Pros: Easy to encrypt file just by moving them into a secure volume. Password quality meter. Can share volumes. Mobile edition. Can encrypt files and folders for email.
Cons: Secure deletion doesn't handle unencrypted originals. Complicated creation of secure volumes, especially after the first. Expensive for what it does.
Bottom Line: Cypherix Cryptainer PE creates encrypted volumes for storing your sensitive files. Lock the volume and nobody can access the files. It does the job, but it's relatively expensive.
Pros: Encrypts files and folders with optional compression. Includes secure deletion. Straightforward user interface. Self-decrypting EXE option.
Cons: No filename encryption. Lacks advanced features.
Bottom Line: Cypherix SecureIT handles the basic task of encrypting and decrypting files and folders in a workmanlike fashion, but it lacks advanced features offered by the competition.
Pros: Creates secure storage for sensitive files. Easy to use. Two-factor authentication.
Cons: Lacks secure deletion. Displayed some odd error messages in testing.
Bottom Line: Any file you drop into InterCrypto CryptoExpert 8's secure storage vaults gets encrypted when you lock the vault. It's easy to use, but it lacks some features and we found some confusing errors in our testing.
Go here to read the rest:
The Best Encryption Software for 2019 | PCMag.com
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