Encryption Protects Your Data
Do you save sensitive files on your computer? Do you use accounting programs such as Quicken, Quickbooks, Peachtree, etc.? Do you save passwords or other personal information on your computer? Is your computer a portable computer?
Computer theft is no longer about the value of the computer. A thief couldn't care less whether your computer is an E-machines or an $8,000 Panasonic; they are after something much more valuable than a used computer: your files. Personal information that could facilitate identity theft is some of the most valuable currency today. The largest of these data collecting organizations are in China and Russia and they make it very easy and profitable for thieves to obtain your information and send it to these organizations. These are highly organized crime rings that will use any information they can obtain.
Protecting yourself from data theft is easier than most people think. The first thing to understand is what does not protect data. Password protected files, startup passwords, and most other passwords on the computer offer no protection if someone else has physical access to a lost or stolen computer. Usually the hard drive is simply removed from the computer and the data is easily read and transferred. Other times it can be even easier; the computer can simply be booted with a USB flash "drive" and simple utilities can be used to find and sort your accounting files, address books, password files, stored web site passwords, and any other sensitive information. Any thief can do this; they no longer have to be technically proficient.
Protecting your data from thieves that have physical access to a computer used to be tedious, but new products have made it incredibly easy to encrypt your files. Encryption is the practice of scrambling information so that it can not be read without the proper decryption keys. In practice, this means that encrypted data will not be readable by thieves even if they have your physical hard drive. Products such as PGP Whole Disk Encryption offer an easy way to encrypt your entire hard drive without changing the way you use your computer or increasing the complexity of operation. Simply install the software and, once your hard drive is encrypted, use the computer as you normally would, after entering a decryption key when you power on your computer. With most modern computers, encryption will not even affect performance; using an encrypted system does not feel any different than using an unencrypted system. If your encrypted computer is ever lost or stolen, the thief cannot read any data without your private password. Even if they remove the hard drive from the computer, no data will be able to be read.
Encryption is now recommended for any portable computer that contains any personal information or any stationary computer on which you would like to protect data from unauthorized physical access.
Encryption does not have to be restricted to hard drives and other storage devices. E-mail, a typically insecure form of communication, can be easily encrypted. Using PGP encryption, for example, a user has a personal "private" key that is never shared and a "public" key that can be safely given to anyone. The public key can be used to encrypt an e-mail or file, but the encrypted file can only be decrypted with the "private" key. Typically a public key is kept on a key-server that anyone can access, so anyone wishing to send you an e-mail containing sensitive information can simply lookup your public key from the Internet without having to request it from you. Many e-mail encryption packages will even lookup the keys from the Internet automatically whenever an e-mail is marked to be encrypted.
Encrypting e-mails is a perfect way to keep the convenience of e-mail while sending personal information. There are many entities trying to obtain our information and, with current IT systems, it's rather easy to do so. Encrypting data offers an easy method of securing personal information without affecting how you use your computer.