Lockdown: How to secure your PC without going crazy

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Encrypting your storage drives

Securing your email is great, but it won’t do you much good if anyone can get into your computer or external drives without much hassle. That’s where encryption for your storage drives comes in. One of the best tools you can use for this is the open-source solution TrueCrypt. In this example, we’ll show you how to encrypt a USB drive. Once you’ve got this method figured out, encrypting your entire hard drive isn’t substantially different—although it does involve a few extra steps.

First things first: Download and install TrueCrypt, then grab a USB drive you want to encrypt. Start TrueCrypt, then click the Create Volume button in the app’s main window.  On the next screen, choose “Encrypt a non-system partition/drive” and click Next.

For the third step, select “Standard TrueCrypt volume” and click Next.

Don’t let all the extra technical details scare you. Just pick your drive based on storage size.

Now you have to find the volume to encrypt: Click Select Device, and a scary looking pop-up window will appear with a list of all the storage devices connected to your PC. It may look confusing, but just concentrate on the row to the right, which lists the storage capacity of each drive. That way you can’t go wrong by mistaking your 1TB external hard drive for a 4GB thumb drive.

In this case, we’re looking for the 2GB flash drive at the bottom of the list. Once you’ve selected the drive, click OK and then Next. Now TrueCrypt wants to know how you’d like to create your encrypted storage. By default, it should say “Create encrypted volume and format it.” This will erase all the data on your USB drive.

TrueCrypt is now going to show you the encryption and hash algorithm options for your locked-down device. The defaults are fine in this case. The final screen you’ll see shows the USB thumb drive’s storage size. As long as it’s reasonably close to the size of your USB drive, click Next once again.

TrueCrypt suggests a 20-character password, but 10 characters should be fine for most people.

Now, it’s time to create a password. If you choose a password with less than 20 characters, TrueCrypt will warn you that it isn’t secure. You can use a 20-character password if you want, but do you really want to enter a 20-character password every time you load a USB drive? Probably not.

Help TrueCrypt’s randomization process by shaking your mouse.

Finally, we’ve made it to the last stage, where TrueCrypt begins creating a random number pool to encrypt your device. Move your mouse around in the window as randomly as you can for a few seconds to help TrueCrypt generate its encryption data, then click Format.

A few minutes later, you’ll have your encrypted drive.

Mounting encryption

Now you’ve got your encrypted USB drive, but to store data on it you’ll need to mount it with TrueCrypt. Go back to the primary TrueCrypt window. From the main menu at the top select Volumes > Select Device and choose your USB drive from that same technical window we saw earlier.

After that’s done, come back to the main window and select any of the drive letters you see. Personally, I always like to choose “X:”, but maybe you’re more of a “W:” or “Q:” person. It doesn’t really matter, just pick a drive letter that’s blank and then click Mount.

TrueCrypt will now ask you for your password, and that’s it. Your TrueCrypt volume is ready to use. Open up Windows Explorer, and you can use this thumb drive just as you normally would.

The only difference is that without a copy of TrueCrypt and your password (assuming it’s a strong, random password) it’s extremely unlikely that anyone would be able to read your data.

Wrapping up the crypt

Once you’ve set up your basic cryptography, you can expand your knowledge and try some advanced techniques. You could learn how to use Gpg4win to encrypt individual files, or transfer your PGP encryption keys to a second PC. How about creating a hidden operating system with TrueCrypt?

Cryptography and digital security can be complicated, but once you understand the basics of cryptographic tools, you could find all kinds of interesting uses for them.

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At a Glance
  • LastPass generates passwords, plus syncs its encrypted password database to the cloud.

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