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Your data is you. Whether it is a collection of photographs you took, images you developed, reports you wrote, stories you thought up or music you collected or composed, it tells a story. Coupled with information that can identify you – whether it is found on the front of an envelope or divulged from the meta-data of those files you worked on – it is possible for those with nefarious intentions to find out far more about you than you’d like.
Perhaps more about you than you are even aware is public.
We’ve compiled these data protection tips to help you get a grip on the security and privacy of data stored on your computer.
Backing Up Your Data
Perhaps the most overlooked data protection tip is ensuring you have your data backed up. Ideally this should be to a separate device, perhaps a network drive, external or removable hard disk drive, even the cloud. But you should also ensure you know where your data is first. After all, if you don’t know that you have a collection of downloads in a temporary folder, or email attachments stored in a mailbox on your HDD, you’re not going to be able to back them up.
The aim of backing up is so that you have a copy of your most important data should your computer be damaged or stolen. Backups stored on external or removable media should be locked away, and ideally encrypted.
Encrypt Your Sensitive Data in Portable Files
Data encryption is becoming ever-more important, but fortunately the tools to encrypt your data are easier to come by. Desktop operating systems ship with native encryption tools, enabling you to make your most sensitive data unreadable to thieves.
In the past, we would recommend TrueCrypt for this task, but as you may know, this software is now abandoned. So how should you encrypt your data now?
The best answer is to employ your operating system’s native encryption tool. For example, Windows users can use BitLocker to encrypt a volume of at least 100 MB in size. By encrypting a USB flash drive with your most vital data on, you have a portable, encrypted storage device that you can access on another Windows 7 or 8 computer that you sign into.
Mac users should follow our previous OS X guide for encrypting folders, using a USB flash device instead of an internal HDD.
Linux users, meanwhile, can use various encryption tools, native or third party, differing based on their chosen distribution. For instance, Ubuntu has the Linux Unified Key Setup tool, which enables you to encrypt your data on a USB flash device in the Disk Utility tool.
Remember to Securely Delete Sensitive Files
Deleting files you don’t want removes them from the operating system, but doesn’t remove them from your hard disk drive. Under standard deletion, the section of the hard disk drive the data is stored on is marked as being available, meaning that it can still be recovered until the HDD sector is overwritten.
Standard recovery tools can recover lost data in minutes. To confirm that the data is genuinely deleted, you’ll need to employ a third party utility that will overwrite the storage again and again until the data can no longer be retrieved.
Native and third party tools are available for Windows users to securely delete their hard drives. For Mac OS X, Disk Utility has a secure erase feature built in. A trio of utilities are available for Linux users to delete data securely on their hard disk drives.
Sadly, SSD drives can never be securely deleted as you’re likely to destroy the drive in the process. The best option is to ensure all data on an SSD is encrypted.
Delete Old Files From The Cloud
Do you use Box, Dropbox, Google Drive or OneDrive? When you sync your documents and photos to these services, they retain a copy of your data, ensuring you can easily restore your documents, images, movies, music and more.
For instance, if you wiped your Windows PC’s hard disk drive but had been using OneDrive, once you sign into Windows 8 or later with the same username and password, the data will be resynced to your computer.
Data that you had thought long-deleted could end up back on your computer. If the file was something you regretted deleting, then this shouldn’t be a problem; if the file is data you believed to have been intentionally deleted, on the other hand…
To ensure your data is securely deleted take a few minutes to ensure that it hasn’t been unintentionally synced to your cloud storage. If it has, delete it.
Disable File & Media Sharing
Do you really need to make files and data available for sharing across your home network?
If this is a feature that you rarely take advantage of, it makes sense to disable it when you don’t need it. A weak home network (wireless routers can be breached using default passwords, for instance) will soon leak information to third parties, and files stored on shared network folders will make the loss of data a bit easier for attackers.
Just as sharing between Windows and Mac OS X computers on the same network is simple, so is disabling file and media sharing. In Windows, all you need to do is open My Computer, expand Network, identify the folder that is being shared, and right-click, selecting Stop sharing in the menu. In Mac OS X, open the Sharing preference panel, and view File Sharing. Look under Shared Folders, select the directory to be unshared, and click the – button. Instructions for Linux will vary by distro, but generally can be found under “Sharing” in the settings menu of your desktop environment.
Disabling file and media sharing “disappears” your data to prying eyes, whether people who are authorized to be on your network or those that have managed to gain access either as guests or intruders.
How do you keep your data secure? What steps do you take for securing external devices or removable media? Tell us in the comments.