What is encryption?
Encryption is the process of converting data to an unrecognizable or “encrypted” form. It is commonly used to protect sensitive information so that only authorized parties can view it. This includes files and storage devices, as well as data transferred over wireless networks and the Internet.
Who requires encrypted data?
Who does and doesn’t require data to be encrypted is confusing at best. For example, the main federal health privacy law — the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA — encourages encryption, but doesn’t require it. Maybe the more important question to ask is,
“What data do you control that is considered sensitive data?”
Sensitive data can be any information that if stolen could potentially result in damages to you, your company or customers of your company. Some examples of sensitive data include social security numbers, credit card numbers, financial data, and individuals’ health information.
How do you encrypt data?
Any discussion about encryption needs to start with a different topic: password strength. Most forms of encryption require you to set a password, which allows you to encrypt the file and to decrypt it later on when you want to view it again. If you use a weak password, a hacker can break the encryption and access the file—defeating the purpose of encryption.
A strong password should be at least 10 characters, though 12 is better. It should include a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, as well as numbers and symbols.
Encrypt your entire hard drive
You probably already have a login password for Windows on your PC, but that won’t actually protect your data if somebody steals your computer or hard drive—the thief can simply plug your drive into another PC and access the data directly. If you have lots of sensitive information on your computer, you want to employ full-disk encryption, which protects all your data even if your hardware falls into the wrong hands. Don’t forget to encrypt your external and USB drives too.
Encrypt your Internet traffic
Sometimes you want to encrypt your outgoing and incoming Internet traffic. If you’re on an unsecured Wi-Fi network (at an airport, for instance), a hacker can intercept the data traveling to and from your laptop, which might contain sensitive information. To make that data useless to eavesdroppers, you can encrypt it using a VPN. A virtual private network creates a secure “tunnel” to a trusted third-party server.
Encrypt your Dropbox (or other cloud storage)
If you or other people in your organization use Dropbox or SugarSync, you’ll be glad to know that those popular cloud storage services already encrypt your data, protecting it in transit and while it sits on their servers. Unfortunately, those same services also hold the decryption keys, which means that they can decrypt your files if, for instance, law enforcement directs them to do so.
If you have any really sensitive files in your cloud storage, use a second layer of encryption to keep them safe from prying eyes. The most straightforward way to do this is to use TrueCrypt to create an encrypted volume inside of your Dropbox.
Encrypt your email
Your email messages can contain some very sensitive information, which makes them a prime candidate for encryption. The level of encryption is dependent on the email system you use. Check with your email service provider for information about the steps you’ll need to take to ensure that your email is encrypted.
Encrypt your Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents
In Office 2010 and 2013, you can encrypt any Word, Excel, or PowerPoint document the same way: Click File, make sure that the Info tab is selected, and then click the Protect Document button. Finally, click Encrypt with Password, and choose a strong password for your file. Anyone who wants to access this file will need the password. As always, it’s not safe to send the password through the same channel that you use to send the file.
Encrypt your PDFs
Like the Microsoft Office products, Adobe Acrobat X Pro makes encrypting a file easy. The option is in the Tools tab at the upper right, in the Protection section. Click the Encrypt button, and then click the option labeled Encrypt With Password.
It is ultimately up to you whether or not you feel your data should be encrypted. In most cases it is best to err on the side of caution and use encryption to protect the access to your data.