The following is a Plus Edition article, written by and copyright by Dick Eastman.
This week's news about someone leaving a flash drive in a London pub is sad for a number of reasons. (The article is available at http://goo.gl/OkfdJ.) It is sad that the personal banking account details of so many people were on the drive where anyone who found it could recover the information. Even worse, I suspect this is but one of thousands of cases of lost flash drives or misplaced information on drives or on web servers. There are no statistics available, but I suspect that lots of information is lost or stolen every day, and most of these losses are never reported.
There is good news in this latest case: the flash drive was found by a good samaritan who gave it to police.
What saddens me most of all is that the entire issue is so easily avoided: encrypt the information. Simply put, encrypting programs scramble data within the file or files that you specify; at the same time, you also specify the magic words or characters that must be used to unscramble those files. Encryption is easy to do, requires only a few seconds, and (in many cases) is free of charge.
After mentioning the word “encryption” at the end of the article about flash drives left in a London pub, one newsletter reader posted a question: “Can you advise me what the best encryption method (free if possible!) is to protect USB drives and the like, please?” This article is my response to that question.
I know that I am paranoid about security, but I worry about my personal information wherever it is stored – online or on flash drives. I also worry about data stored on my computer at home. There are thousands of hackers around the world running automated scripts that attempt to connect to individual in-home computers to access information. This remote access is easy to block, but many people don't know that.
Even higher risk is in-home physical access. Sure, I trust my family members with any information I have, but do I trust their friends who visit our home? Do I trust the plumbers, the electricians, the locksmith, the delivery drivers, and others who enter the home, sometimes when I am not there? They can easily access my computer, even if for only a few seconds.
I used to have a job fixing computers in homes and in offices. In more than one case, I found viruses had been introduced to computers by babysitters. These same babysitters obviously had easy access to the entire computers' contents and could easily have copied information to a flash drive or sent it by email to another computer anywhere in the world. In most cases, the babysitters had plenty of time to do this.
I no longer employ babysitters or pet sitters, but perhaps you do. If so, you need to ask yourself if you trust that babysitter or pet sitter with all your secrets.
One simple solution will eliminate all this worry: encryption will lock out prying eyes from your local data on your own computer at home as well as protect data stored on flash drives, on web servers, in the cloud, or elsewhere.
Who cares if someone gets their hands on your encrypted files? Assuming the encryption is performed with current, state-of-the art software, nobody can read your encrypted files without knowing those magic characters that will unscramble the files – the encryption key. Luckily, there are dozens of encryption programs to choose from, and many of them are available free of charge.
Encryption is used by the military, civilian governments, and corporations to keep secret information just that: secret. The U.S. military uses advanced cryptography techniques to document war plans, inventories of atomic bombs, intelligence information, and similar secrets. The banking industry uses encryption to safely transfer billions of dollars every day. If encryption meets the needs of these organizations, it will work for you.
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