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Scramble it!

Encrypting data in e-mail and on hard drives is easier than you think. Marilyn is spending her Saturday morning paying bills when she suddenly realizes that the year is quickly evaporating and that she wants her accountant to give her a mid-year tax assessment. She decides that she should e-mail her accountant an exported spreadsheet from her financial program that contains her tax-related data.

Bill in the HR department is spending his Monday morning inputting changes to salary data into the database that supports his 100-person company. The company president had reviewed and approved the new figures just the Friday before. As he inputs the data, Bill starts thinking about how to better protect the HR data from prying eyes on the network given that the company has just hired some pretty technical people.

What do Marilyn and Bill both need? In a word, encryption. Sensitive data can now be found on home computers and small business networks, as well as in larger companies and government entities.

But, what constitutes ‘sensitive data’? It really depends on what you are doing on your computers. But, in general, sensitive data is information that you don’t want others to see unless they are suppose to.

For example, perhaps you are keeping your Christmas shopping list on your computer and you don’t want your computer savvy youngsters to know what Santa is bringing them. Or, maybe you are responsible for customer data at your company and you want to add an extra measure of security (above and beyond network and database authentication).

Encrypting e-mail communication as well as data stored on your hard disks should be a fundamental part of your security practices–whether at home or at the office. But, adding encryption to your security arsenal doesn’t mean that you need to become a cryptographer. E-mail and hard disk encryption tools available today are easy to get up and running, and, what’s more, the cost won’t get you down. Prices range from Ôfree’ to less than one hundred dollars.

Encrypting data on hard drives

To identify which tool might be best to use to encrypt the data on your hard drives, you merely need to note your operating system, budget, and whether you want to encrypt individual files or all the data on your disk.

Some of the available tools let you encrypt single files while others can encrypt at the hard disk partition level. Home users will likely find it easier to install and use tools that work at the file or folder level while business users will find it much easier to encrypt at the partition level, especially if multiple departments exist and various operating systems are being used.

BestCrypt from Jetico falls into the category of encryption tools that work at a partition (or volume) level. It can encrypt both Windows and Linux volumes. Data stored on the encrypted volumes are still usable by you or other authorized persons, but others who are not authorized will be unable to access your data.

By contrast, Crypto from Software Design is small utility for Windows users that lets you drag and drop individual files or folders into it. After dragging and dropping, you enter an encryption key to encode (and decode later) files you want to keep away from other users.

GnuPG (The GNU Privacy Guard) can be used to encrypt and decrypt both e-mail and files on your hard drive. It’s free (GNU General Public License) and is available for many different operating systems. In particular, you’ll want to check out the large number of front-end tools that are available for GnuPG. For example, there are tools to integrate GnuPG into Windows, Mac OS, KDE, and GNOME desktops. In addition, you’ll find other front-end tools that you can use to hook GnuPG into your favorite e-mail client–whether that is Mozilla, Pine, Eudora, or Outlook.

Like BestCrypt, PGP Disk allows you to encrypt the entire contents of a hard drive. This will keep unwanted users from accessing sensitive data you have stored on disk. But, interestingly, PGP Disk also supports mobile devices, such as Palm and WinCE units. E-mail encryption for mobile devices is also available from the same company. Since mobile devices could easily fall into unauthorized hands, they are as important to secure with encryption as your laptop or desktop.

Sentry 2020 is specifically geared to Windows desktops. It integrates with the Windows Explorer. Like Crypto, Sentry 2020 provides an easy mechanism for Windows users of any level to be able to protect data and programs on Windows systems.

Steganos Disk Encryption is also limited to Windows systems, but it provides a useful way to encrypt your entire hard drive. The only downside is that your encrypted drive size is limited to 2GB. So, if you have a lot of data to protect, this might not be the best option.

Encrypting e-mail

E-mail encryption is just as important (if not more so) than encrypting data on hard disks. You certainly don’t want the secret ingredients for your favorite recipe to fall into unknown hands any more than you want private company data being visible to hackers.

The undisputed leader in e-mail encryption is Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) followed closely by Gnu Privacy Guard (GPG). This is due to the wide array of platforms supported and the low cost (free). Either of these solutions is a good bet whether you use a Palm Pilot to send and receive e-mails while on the go or a Macintosh, Linux, BSD, or Windows system.

If you use Lotus Notes or Microsoft Outlook, Encryption Plus might be an option to consider. The PC Guardian tool inserts easily into either Notes or Outlook and it provides one-click encryption functionality, which is ideal for computer users who are not experienced with encryption. The only downside is that the recipient of any encrypted message you send to using Encryption Plus must be running the Windows operating system. If you have friends, colleagues, or business partners who have made the switch to other operating systems, such as Macintosh or Linux, Encryption Plus is probably not a good choice when compared to other solutions, such as PGP or GPG.

PrivyPad is an interesting and unique encryption solution for Windows users to consider. Rather than inserting itself into your e-mail client, PrivyPad closely resembles the built-in Notepad application that comes with Windows. After composing an e-mail in the text editor, PrivyPad lets you easily encrypt it and then copy and paste it into your favorite e-mail client.

Also of interest to Windows users is QDPGP, which draws upon the PGP standard to deliver encryption capabilities for users of Pegasus Mail. QPGP acts as a plug-in for Pegasus Mail and encrypts and decrypts e-mails that you send and receive.

Top Secret Messenger also provides encryption services for users who might be using Outlook. But, perhaps more interestingly, Top Secret Messenger provides encryption for instant messaging applications, such as ICQ, MSN, and Miranda. If you find yourself sending or receiving sensitive data via instant messaging tools, Top Secret Messenger might be an option to consider.

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