Our computers contain professional and personal information, some of which is sensitive. This information can include social security numbers, credit card details and sometimes even passwords. We may also store client contracts, project reports and confidential client information on our laptops. Many of us believe that this information is secure. But this is dangerously wrong. In fact, the information stored on your laptop is accessible to anyone in possession of your hard drive and only basic technical skills.
Usernames and passwords control access to accounts and programs. What they do not do is protect the files on your computer’s hard drive. Unless your hard drive is encrypted, it is very easy for anybody to access your information.
You can try this yourself. It is very simple. First, remove the hard drive from your computer. You will probably need a screwdriver and the computer user manual. Second, put the hard drive into a USB external enclosure. You can find these devices on Ebay for just a few dollars. Then plug the newly created external hard drive to another computer. Et voila, you can browse all the files on the hard drive, open them and read them. No password or username required. Everything is there and available.
Now imagine if your computer is stolen and the thief has access to your sensitive information. Not good huh?
So how can you protect yourself? The answer is encryption. Encryption encodes the information on your hard drive and requires a password for access, even if the drive has been extracted from the computer. The encryption can be linked to your account username and password and in this case, your username and password are the encryption mechanism.
Apple and Microsoft offer good encryption tools. The MacOS includes FileVault while Windows has Bitlocker. In Windows 8.1 it is a native encryption application; to use it you need a Microsoft internet account.
Perhaps you are wondering why something as important as encryption is not enabled as standard? Turns out Microsoft, Apple and Google for Android are very cautious about making encryption standard on their phones. Apparently they are under pressure from government intelligence agencies who don’t want to see encryption become mainstream. The ability to access data on consumer devices is often an important part of criminal investigations. Law enforcement issues aside, most consumers today are exposed to risk of information theft as very few computers today are encrypted.
Below is information about how you can protect yourself by encrypting your computer’s hard drive:
- Windows 7: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-AU/windows7/products/features/bitlocker
- Windows 8: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-au/windows-8/using-device-encryption
- MacOS: https://support.apple.com/en-au/HT204837