How To Encrypt Sensitive Data with TrueCrypt

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In any given month, I will perhaps try out around ten new software apps or web services. Out of those ten, nine get dumped pretty much right away for various reasons but the other one, to quote Goldmember, gets filed away as a “keeper”. I am pretty picky when it comes to software and web applications. Just one small minor irritant is enough to put me off the service for life. My only requirements are that a) it is useful to me in some way and b) it will work when I want it to. You’d be amazed (or not) at how much of the internet those simple requirements automatically excludes!

I will be writing for MakeUseOf.com and to begin with, I will be talking about a small hard-core group of software apps and web services that I can’t live without. Comments are welcome and I will be watching and jumping into the discussion!

Today I want to discuss an application called TrueCrypt.

I am a pretty paranoid security-conscious kind of guy which I suppose comes from being in a police family. I change my passwords once a week to another random algorithim which is good from a security point of view but absolutely hellish when it comes to remembering those passwords! I mean, who can remember 6$zx!@GH32b!$5$2X!8 ? It’s not exactly something that rolls off your tongue is it? At the same time, leaving an open password list on your computer is extremely foolish too. Plus, what about all those bank statements, tax forms, credit card bills and so on?

With the increasing popularity of online banking, the potential to have extremely sensitive information on your computer is higher than ever. What if a hacker got a hold of those forms and stole your identity? The answer – encrypt your files.

I hesitated for a long time before jumping into encryption. I tried an encryption system a few years back which immediately malfunctioned. I then couldn’t open the folders and I couldn’t get the encryption system off the operating system. I ended up having to re-format the entire Windows OS. That traumatised me for years as I had a lot of important stuff in those encrypted folders and I was hesitant to try again. However, with hackers trying to get into my online accounts on a regular basis, my passwords got longer and more complicated and I knew I would eventually have to encrypt my password list.

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I looked at many possibilities but I preferred to go with a recommendation. A good friend of mine in the US recommended the free TrueCrypt and her exact words were “even an idiot could set this up!”. I figured that was good enough for me (!) and I went ahead and downloaded it. It was the best decision I ever made.

How it works basically boils down to this – you create a folder on your “C” drive, just a normal regular folder. You give it a name – let’s just say for the purposes of this discussion that it’s called FORT KNOX. This folder is where the encrypted files will be stored. You next have to decide how big you want this folder to be – choose well as you can’t change it afterwards! I chose 1GB which seemed enough for me but you may decide on more or less.

When you want to open the folder, you choose one of your drives (I normally use the Z drive) and then you move the FORT KNOX folder to that drive. Enter the master password and that then automatically decrypts and opens your files in seconds so you can access them.

When you don’t need the files anymore, just shut down and remove the FORT KNOX folder from your TrueCrypt drive. The folder is then instantly encrypted again and totally unbreakable (or so the company claims).

You can also put TrueCrypt onto your USB flash-drive so the contents are inaccessible if you lose your USB drive while out. This was a big plus for me when deciding whether to use TrueCrypt or not. I never go anywhere without my USB drive and being able to secure it gave me extra peace of mind.

Truecrypt comes with a PDF manual and there is a set-up wizard to hold your hand while you go through the set-up procedure. If you have any problems, get in touch or leave a comment and I’ll try to help. However there is a LOT more to Truecrypt which I haven’t looked at yet. In fact I have barely scratched the surface here. So I may not be able to help with any complicated queries!

Has anyone else used TrueCrypt? Any good or bad experiences with it? Can anyone recommend another good encryption program? Let us know in the comments!

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