Given skyrocketing fuel prices, international travel is a lot more expensive than it used to be. But many business travelers are concerned about another problem: What to do when U.S. border officials want to search the contents of your laptop hard drive? The potential risk of revealing confidential data is significant. In fact, the Association of Corporate Travel Executives has cautioned business travelers to leave their data at home.
Despite questions raised by privacy advocates and U.S. senators alike, the Homeland Security policy seems unlikely to change soon. Fortunately, there are ways to protect your data without leaving your laptop at the office. For example, the latest version of TrueCrypt, released last Friday, can create a protected pocket of your hard drive that's virtually invisible to prying eyes.
Encryption, once a relatively obscure mathematical oddity, has become a crucial method of keeping data from falling into the wrong hands in the Internet age. It's built into a lot of the applications you use already, from backup software to your Web browser. It's what keeps snoops from being able to intercept your credit card number during e-commerce transactions, for example. It's also one of the preferred means of protecting data on the Federal government's own laptops.
As they say, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. TrueCrypt allows you to protect the sensitive data on your personal laptop in a way that's relatively unobtrusive and yet almost completely bulletproof. There is no way to prove that a hidden encrypted volume even exists on your drive unless you volunteer that information. And best of all, TrueCrypt is free open source software.
TrueCrypt works by creating a virtual disk on your hard drive, the contents of which are encrypted on the fly. All you need to do to ensure that a file or folder is encrypted is to store it on the virtual drive; the software handles the rest. Version 6.0a even allows you to run a hidden operating system from the encrypted drive, or encrypt an entire system drive on Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 systems (but not XP).
The new version includes other improvements, as well. As with any software that interrupts normal disk read/write operations, using TrueCrypt may decrease performance somewhat. But version 6.0 now supports multi-core, multiprocessor systems, which can speed up encryption, decryption, and volume mounting on the latest chips significantly. In addition, TrueCrypt now uses kernel-level encryption services under Linux, which can also improve performance.
Life would be easier if we never had to worry about the wrong people getting hold of our data. In fact, in a truly perfect world, nobody would have anything to hide. Until such a place exists, however, encryption remains one of our best options for keeping control of our and our companies' sensitive data.
TrueCrypt 6.0a is available now for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux systems, including Windows Vista.