Assuming the worst case scenario happens and your computer's security gets compromised, you can still have one layer of protection--file encryption. In the scenario of a stolen laptop/computer sensitive data cannot be read while encrypted. Read this guide to learn how to find the right transcription software package for your particular needs.
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Why encryption software?
The more we use our computer, the more we gather sensitive information. Whether we collect this sensitive material from work, from research online or we created ourselves, regardless of the source this highly sensitive information is crucial for accessing bank accounts, financial information, health information or health insurance. The bottom line is this information, if it falls into the wrong hands, can cause you lost money, lost time and a lot of headaches. Another reason that sensitive personal information stored in your computer is important is that a lot of the times, people do not back up this material. It is a one-of-a-kind piece of information. However, many of the personal information that we store are not protected. Anybody just double click on a text file and open it. Windows has a default text file application, Microsoft Note Pad or doc file can be easily opened in Microsoft Word or Open Office and other applications.
Why encrypt your files?
First, it keeps other unauthorized people from accessing your file because encryption software requires them to enter a password before the system de-encrypts your file. This password protection makes sure that nobody else but people that you trust can access your files. The second reason people encrypts files is it makes the information unusable and unreadable unless decrypted. If for some reason your laptop gets stolen or lost or your computer, you bring your computer for repairs and somebody tries to look at your files or your personal folders, they are prompted with a password. The third reason is that your files become useless and unreadable. Regardless of how many times it gets passed along or if people post it online, nobody could make sense of the files unless they have the proper password for it or if they have the proper de-encryption software and password for it.
Both Files & Folders
Another advantage of encryption software is that it protects not just specific files but whole folders. This protects your content creation process. A lot of the times, people generate information for projects, for work in their spare time and just dump the files into a folder. If unprotected, anybody could just have access to this material. Also if your computer gets hacked or security gets compromised, anybody could hack in to your computer and see what files you have on and open it fairly easily. Also if you hide them in folders, they can easily find the folders and open the folders to access you files. Encryption software can lock the folders, meaning it would be password protected before they can access each item and even once they get through each item, it is still encrypted. You get a double layer of protection.
Key Features of Encryption Software Explained
At its most basic, encryption software must have four key features or else you are getting an encryption software package that is under powered. Everything else really is extra after this, but these are the basics that you would need.
This algorithm re-writes your data into a form that is unreadable to any other de-encryption program except the encryption program that you use to encrypt it. These algorithms normally work in blocks of 32 bits. Older encryption algorithms use 32 bit and then 64 bit and then a little bit later 128 bit and currently 256 bits. The higher the bits of information, the more random and harder to unlock the file is because the longer the strings of information used to encrypt, the more work it would take to guess how these combinations would line up to piece together the file. The higher the number of bits, the more complicated the encrypted file and the harder it is to crack. Try to take 256 bits or higher. The higher the bits, the more protected are your files. Keep that in mind.
This feature automatically shreds your original file after you encrypt it. This feature protects you from accidentally leaving an unencrypted version of your file on your computer. By overwriting and "losing the original file," you no longer have to fear that if you were absent minded or forgetful that you have left an unencrypted file on your computer that anyone can open. This file shredding feature is really a housekeeping feature. Once you encrypt a file, the original is taken cared of. This feature just builds more security and confidence.
Most people create and store files in folders. Some think they are being clever by using hidden folders, folders that have strange names, folders that are hidden within many other folders so there is sub-, sub-, sub-folders. As clever these tactics may be, they can easily intruded with the proper tools and even with the basic search functionality of Windows 7 and even manually by a very determined intruder. Encryption software provides real protection by locking your folder and shredding the files inside. For the intruder to go into the folder, they would have to enter a password so the location of the encrypted files is blocked off from unauthorized access. This feature is great for portable USB drives which is very popular nowadays. You just need to load your sensitive files into a folder and lock it and remember the password and you are set.
Portable de-encryption and encryption
This is a crucial feature because if you are transferring files from one computer to another using USB drives or if you upload and E-mail it to yourself or you use this web service like drop box to send files to your self, it is a hassle if the encryption software that you are using is not installed in the machine that you are going to de-encrypting from. One key example of this is if you are traveling and you do not have your laptop with you and you download an encrypted file that you stored online to your temporary computer when you are away from home, and you do not have the encryption software program installed on the remote computer. In that situation, you cannot open the encrypted file. Portable encryption means that you just need to remember the password and the encrypted file will de-encrypt itself. It has a fragment of the main encryption program so it would de-encrypt itself. It is very handy and very portable and great for traveling. Of course, when dealing with very personal files that you de-encrypt in a remote computer or a computer that is not yours, you have to take special measures to destroy the file that you de-encrypted because leaving it intact defeats the purpose of encrypting the file in the first place.
Issues to Keep in Mind When Selecting Encryption Software
Encryption software is like the blues. The blues really just uses a few set of chords and what makes one blues composition different from another revolves around the creativity and performance of the composer or the player. They do not really vary that much, but you can tell a quality composition from not-so-good composition. The same goes with encryption software. The core features must remain the same and must be standardized. However, the difference in encryption software is the amount of bloat that the software publisher puts in the software. Bloat means usually features that you do not really need. They do not really apply to your particular situation. There is a high chance that you could buy software that is bloated and priced accordingly, so you end up paying more money both for the software and for upgrades, for things that you do not really need.
Avoid bloated software by scrutinizing the feature closely and zeroing in on what the basics are and also what the add-ons beyond the basics that actually applies to your situation. Focus on the add-ons that you would actually need.
Focus on basic needs
Process Efficiency of the Encrpytion Software
The key basic need any decent encryption software should have is fast encrypting / decrypting process. This is non-negotiable. It must be very fast. The encryption process can be a very long process. It can be very complicated, especially if it uses a very big algorithm like 256 bit or higher. With that said, it should be a fast process. While the encryption process could be very complicated, it should still be a fast process because buying encryption software that takes forever to work really defeats the purpose because you are prone to use it less. You know it is a bother when it is encrypting and it takes a lot of time and a lot of your computer's resource so you tend to use it less and because of this less frequent usage, it actually defeats the purpose it was bought for. This results in ending up with a lot more unprotected files.
Portable and Practical
Another basic need is, it has to be very portable, meaning you just right click on a file and you click a menu item whether encrypt or decrypt and it does this in a very simple manner. This is very important because portability impacts again the usefulness of the software. If the encrypted files cannot be used on any other machines except where the encryption software is located, the value of this piece of software is pretty much drastically reduced because if your computer gets stolen, there goes all your data. Even if you do manage an online back up and you upload the encrypted files, but your computer got stolen and the software installation was stolen with it, then you would have to go to the extra difficulty of buying the software again and putting it in the new computer and then downloading the files from the remote server. For maximum flexibility and portability purposes, you have to insist on easy access usage and portability.
Reliable Encryption and Decryption
The next basic need is reliability in encryption and decryption. This process, complicated as it is, must be error free. This is extremely important because if there is an error in the encryption process and it also automatically shredded your file, you are out of luck. Not only can you not open the new file that you created because it got corrupted and there was an error, you cannot go back to the shredded file because it is gone. It is very important that it must be error free. Thankfully, most encryption software has been tested thoroughly and is error free, but there are a few older packages floating out there. Be very careful. Locking folders as described above is important as well, although it could be an option. File shredding is very important, but it could be an option as well. However, the other factors discussed in this section are crucial and are basic and must be present in the features of any encryption software that you are considering.
Finding the Right Add-on Features
The difference between bloated software and useful features depends on your particular needs. If you drop a lot of files into the same folder, make sure you look for a locking folder feature in the feature set of your encryption software. The same goes with file shredding. If you think there is a chance that you might absentmindedly leave an encrypted file in a location somewhere, this might be a feature that you would pay extra for. The key here is to avoid bloated software by being mindful of what your basic needs are, the features that you must have, and the add-on features that match what you are looking for.
Another add-on feature that might be of use to some people is a password meter. When you are encrypting and you type in a potential password, you are given a rating as to how hard it is to crack that password. This handy little feature determines the strength of the password to put into an encrypted file. However, to many people this might be unnecessary feature. It might add to bloat because if you already have a tough but easy to remember password in mind, then you do not need password meter telling you how hard it is to crack because you already know.
The same analysis applies to another popular add-on feature which is the password generator. This utility creates a randomly generated password that is tough to crack. The problem with this is if you did not memorize it before, you might forget and you might be forced to write it down and depending on how your office is set up, somebody else might have access to that password. Also if you keep it in a stored location, it is hard when you are traveling to retrieve it. If there are any emergencies, it is probably easier to go with a memorized password that is hard to crack. If you go that route, then this feature is completely unnecessary and does not fit your particular needs.
Another add-on feature that many people look for is file compression. File compression shrinks the size of your encrypted file and helps with the space management of your hard drive. Hard drives are getting larger and larger with each generation of computer. Some people would still prefer smaller files and file compression also helps because a lot of times, encrypted files tend to be really big because they tend to be randomized and encoded in less space-friendly way. Built-in file compression helps keep your file small. If you generate a lot of sensitive private files, then file compression add-on feature is something you should look for.
Another key feature for encryption software involves privacy protection through history cleaning, this type of functions can also be found in privacy software. The history cleaning feature eliminates all traces or mentions of the encrypted file creation in your system. If somebody is spying around in your computer and they look into recent documents, they will not see an encrypted file there. The same goes with somebody running a scan on application usage on your computer. They will not see a log or a record of your encryption activities. Why is this important? If you do not have this feature, people would see that you have created encrypted files on your computer easily. If this information is gone, they would not know that you would even have the encrypted files at all. Another danger in not having history cleaning function in your encryption software is they might be able to find the location of the file. If they are able to find it in recent documents, they might be able to snoop around to find the location of your encrypted files.
Another add-on feature that boosts the security of your computer is hack attempt logging. If someone is trying to hack into your locked folders, every time they try such attempts gets logged, so this is really helpful since if you are keeping secret folders when you access those secret folders, you can see if somebody tried to enter. What this would tell you is if somebody has found out yours secret files. Also it tells you of any security breeches in your computer. It might be a big tip off to change the master password of your computer and also seeing if your system has been infected with a virus or spyware that allowed an intruder to access and tried to open your encrypted files.
Other Considerations when shopping for Encryption Software
Ease of Use
As powerful as encryption software is and what is not to respect with 256-bit encryption and military grade encryption of your files. As much as that is a very powerful, it is also very complicated. You need a package that is really easy to use and intuitive. If it is complicated and you get intimated by the complexity, you are probably discouraged from using it as often as you should and with repeated and long-term use of your computer, you end up having more unencrypted files than encrypted files. This defeats the purpose of buying an encryption software in the first place. You need user interface and feature arrangement that makes it easy for you to use and to make it a habit to use and no file is left unencrypted.
Portability cannot be emphasized enough. The simpler and easier it is to de-encrypt a file from one computer to another, the better. Portability gives you a lot of flexibility. The only requirement should be just the password. Other than that, there must be no need for software installation in the new computer or any other hassles because portability helps you survive any problems your computer might have like hardware problems or back up problems. All you need to do is back up your sensitive files online so you can access it from anywhere in the world or E-mail it to yourself and then you are set.
With technical support, you have to pick the package that has the support package that you are comfortable with. Many technical support packages focus on paid support. If this is an issue for you, then make sure that there is a wide range of support options. The knowledge based support option helps you get support by going to a website and it is all self-service from there. You enter in your query search term and if somebody has asked that question before it has been resolved, somebody has encountered that topic before and it has been resolved, the answers are in the knowledge base. The drawback of the knowledge base is if you encounter a new problem and nobody else has run across that issue. The likelihood of it being in the knowledge base is close to zero.
Software User Base
Another key concern with knowledge-based technical support is the number of people that use your encryption software. The better the installed base is, the more valuable the knowledge base for that product is because a larger user base means a larger likelihood that they have encountered some key issues. This provides the necessary intelligence for the software publisher's technical support people to put into the knowledge base. If you are using fairly rare encryption software, then the chances of your question not being in the knowledge base is quite high.
Another option for technical support is user forums. Here you look for a discussion thread that already asked your question, and if nobody has encountered that question, you type it into the forum and hope for a reply. The problem with support forums is that sometimes it takes a long time to get the answers. It is probably a better idea to not only try the forum, but use it in conjunction with other support avenues because if you are just going to rely on the support forum, it may take a long time until you get the answer if ever. If you look at many support forums for software, there are many unanswered discussions.
Another option is the FAQ sheet. You just type in your question and then if it gets matched with a question closest to it, the answer is displayed. The drawback for this again is similar with the knowledge bases because this technical support option turns on whether other people have run into the same issues you have. If your issue is fairly new, you are pretty much out of luck. Also the size of the installed base impacts the feasibility of the FAQ database. The final factor is the turnaround time and attention to detail of the software publisher. If they are really focused on costumer support, the FAQ that they answer privately would be put up in their website immediately.
Encryption Software: The Conclusion
With all the threats facing your computer from virus, malware attacks to identity theft and online fraud, protect your sensitive personal information by encrypting it. Encryption gives you a final layer of protection against security compromises and it puts you solidly in control of the situation. However, differing encryption software packages vary widely in terms of add-on features and so you have to choose wisely to pick the features that add value to your particular situation.