Monday, September 29, 2008

The question of security

962334_secureThese days, almost everything that defines us (our thoughts, feelings, passions, hobbies, even dietary habits) are out there in some digital form or the other. Online services such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs let us share thoughts that we'd otherwise be quite averse to sharing with the world at large. Besides the stuff we intentionally want to share, there's a whole lot of information that should never reach the public domain -- credit card numbers, online bank passwords, official documents and all such. All these are prone to being left around, ready for an opportunist (or an active hacker) to pounce on. And so we wonder-- how secure is our digital data?

Over the past few years, I've used several software that can help protect 'eyes only' data. We all know the drill about how it's important to use strong passwords (long combinations of hard-to-guess letters and numerals), un-share folders so that they're not visible on a shared network, use the password protection feature for your documents et al. All this is just the first line of protection. To really protect your confidential information, you'll need to resort to more robust methods for locking down your data. So much so, that hackers with even the fastest computers in the world today would require decades to decode it. The key to your data's security is encryption.

Quite simply, encryption is a technique for encoding data, such that it appears random and indecipherable to unauthorized viewers. Think of it as a way of putting your documents through a shredder, and being able to magically re-assemble it to its original state whenever you want to view it. Encryption techniques are frequently used by government and military organizations (for obvious reasons), but the good news is that it's not so difficult for housewives, students, accountants, and shopkeepers to use either.

In itself, the process of encryption involves ultra-complex mathematical algorithms that process data in strange and wonderful ways to make it appear like digital garbage. If you're so inclined, see here for brief explanations of these different algorithms. You'd have to have a serious interest in advanced mathematics to dig any deeper. If you'd rather not, you can directly jump in and start using one of the several encryption applications available, and be on your way to locking down your data.

TrueCrypt On the desktop front, I strongly recommend TrueCrypt. I've been using this (free) application for years now, and have never felt more secure about my data. This encryption software (like several others), creates a 'container' in which you can copy any kind of file, just as you would copy to a pen drive or a folder on your hard disk. TrueCrypt creates a 'volume' that appears as a normal Windows drive that you can format or copy files into. But it encrypts your data in real time while copying files to the drive: no need to wait while you drag and drop files--it happens virtually instantly. The only way to view these encrypted files is by mounting the containing volume using a pass key you define. You can create volumes as small as a few megabytes (to store on a thumb drive, for example) all the way to hundreds of gigabytes -- yes, you can even encrypt your entire hard disk. While this application costs nothing, it sacrifices nothing by way of capability--it is powered by a variety of best-of-class encryption techniques that will more than serve your data security needs. If you like jargon, this application supports military-strength encryption KeePassPPCalgorithms including AES, Serpent, Twofish, and combinations thereof. The excellent Beginner's Tutorial will help you quickly get started, and if you need help while using it, there's plenty of it under the Help menu.

There are several such options on the mobile front. If you're using a Windows Mobile phone (Pocket PC 2003, WM5, or WM6) and would like to safely carry your personal information on your cell phone, I recommend an excellent encryption utility called KeePassPPC. It's quick, and it provides a secure zone for storing your credit card details, bank account numbers and even personal notes. Best of all, it's free.


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