The art of obfuscating messages goes back centuries, and, if you’re in to that sort of thing, makes for fascinating reading whether you view it as a political act, a security act, or even just a matter of implementing technology. There’s an important distinction between the kinds of secret messages that were sent in decades (or centuries) past and today, and it’s this.
We work in an environment where we increasingly carry more and more data around with us on a variety of devices. Your mobile phone invariably knows your contact book a whole lot better than you do. Your tablet may be primarily a consumption device, but can also be a useful work tool for private files. With desktop PC sales being comprehensively dwarfed by sales of notebooks, it’s no longer unusual to be carrying around an entire office’s worth of data with you — that’s if you’re not already carrying around a filing cabinet’s worth of data on a cheap USB drive. I’ve got a drawer full of the things, but I’m constantly surprised at how cheap they’ve become; a 16GB USB drive — many times larger than the first hard drive I ever purchased — can now be easily had at retail for around ten bucks.
Mobility is great, but it’s not without its risks; anything that’s easy to carry is something that’s easy for someone else to steal, or indeed for you to simply lose in a cafe, restaurant, or just while in transit. It stings to lose valuable computing gear, but the real value of what you’re carrying could well be in the personal or business data that’s no longer with you. What happens to that data when it’s no longer in your hands?
On the tablet side of things, the general approach has been for remote wiping, with solutions for Android tablets and the inbuilt “Find My iPhone” utility from Apple handling that kind of remote clearance relatively easily, as long as the unit’s actually connected online again. What, though, of a lost USB drive or laptop?
That’s where encryption — encoding your files so they can only be unlocked with a password — comes into play. An encrypted file will only unlock with the correct password, although some utilities may take that further if required for additional security layers.
There are utilities such as TrueCrypt that can handle encryption of drives or partitions for you on older operating systems, but depending on your operating system choice, you may already have tools to hand; users of Windows 7 Ultimate or the Pro or Enterprise versions of Windows 8 get Bitlocker Drive Encryption, while Mac OS users can encrypt drives straight from the Finder. There is a small utility price to pay for encryption — you’ve got to have the time to encrypt files or drives, and if you do forget the password for anything encrypted it’s effectively lost; the current standard state of encryption doesn’t make it 100% bulletproof, but unless you’ve opted for a very short, very simple password it’d take decades of high computing power to crack. I wouldn’t say that every file you have needs to be encrypted per se, but it’s rather solidly something you should consider if the files you’re carrying contain information that you wouldn’t want to be broadly disseminated. That way if you do lose your laptop or external drive, you’re only looking at replacement cost for the hardware — something that’s usually cheaper and/or better than when you bought it — and not worrying about what’s being done with the data that was on that hardware.