Home Computer Data Encryption: USA Today Columnist Recommends Don’t.

I ran across a piece of advice stating that encrypting home computers might something other than a good idea.  According to Ms. Komando (love that name) from USA Today, she would use some other ways of securing data.  I can’t help but raise some observations…

The Advice

My apologies to USA Today for lifting the Q&A wholesale (but I need it to comment on it):

Q: I have some sensitive files on my home computer. My friend is telling me I should encrypt them. Is this a good idea?

A: This is a tricky question. Encryption scrambles digital information so unauthorized people can’t read it. You need the password for access. That makes it good for security. Unfortunately, if you lose the password you can’t get the files anymore either. So it is a bit risky. For a home computer, I would recommend strengthening your security in other ways. Set up a Windows password to keep snoops away. Make sure you have up-to-date security software installed. This will keep viruses from compromising your system. Encrypt any Wi-Fi network you’re using. If you do use encryption, keep unencrypted versions of the files as well. Put them on a flash drive and store the drive in a safe.

Granted, the hazard of losing a password to encrypted information is real.  I know because we get calls at AlertBoot from laptop encryption users.  Thankfully, we’re able to help them out; more on that later.

Also, take into account that properly designed encryption software is very effective at stopping unauthorized people from accessing a computer’s contents.  If you lose the password, chances are no one (not even the super secret spy services) will be able to gain access to the contents.

Set Up a Windows Password

For the average home computer user, what’s the difference between this and an encryption password?  Nothing.  I mean, it’s not as if there’s some kind of magical property to Windows passwords that make them resistant to forgetfulness.

On the backend, though, it’s a completely different technological world.  The Windows password can be bypassed in a number of ways that can’t be done with encryption.  So, if one does forget one’s password, instructions to get around the “I forgot my password” problem can be found on the internet.  Or the computer can be taken in for servicing.

The flipside of this problem is, a computer thief can do the same exact thing.

It’s no wonder that Window’s password protection is the butt of jokes in some circles, with the astute observation that it serves to annoy legitimate users on a daily basis while posing little resistance to thieves.

Keep Unencrypted Files

The purpose of using encryption is to keep files secure.  It makes no sense to encrypt some files and also store unencrypted versions of that file somewhere that’s safe.  I mean, why just not encrypt the original files but keep the entire computer in a safe place?

One might say, well, the computer (a laptop) might be taken somewhere that’s “not a safe place.”  The USB flashdrive could remain behind in a safe.  I agree, except that that has nothing to do with forgetting passwords.  What you’re talking about here is ensuring you have a backup in case you lose the original data.  (That’s just sane advice, no matter how you cut it.  Also, I’d like to point out that if you do create a backup to the original, the backup must also be encrypted if the original is encrypted).

But, from the perspective of forgetting how to unscramble your data, couldn’t you achieve the same thing by writing the password on a slip of paper and keeping that in a safe place?  Why increase your chances of a data breach, no matter how small that increase might be, by generating another set of files that can be breached?

Ensuring You Always Have a Password

When it comes to data security, the best policy is not to hold any sensitive or personal data that you don’t need.  If you don’t have it in a computer, you don’t need to protect it.  If you do need to protect the data, then encryption is about the only way to ensure its safety.

My home computer is encrypted because I often use it for work and I deal with sensitive data.  You might not see the need for it, on the other hand.  And if you don’t, that’s cool.  I’m not about insinuate that you need it, no matter what.

However, if you are deliberating the use of encryption and the issue of forgetting your password is of concern, you have at least a couple of options that should sit better than what I read in USA Today:

  • Write the password down.  Plenty of people think this is bad advice.  It’s only bad advice if you write down the password and carry it with the computer.  If you tape it to the back of the refrigerator, not so much (note to thieves: my password is not taped to the back of my refrigerator).  Keep the password away from your computer in a safe place.

  • Use password management software.  I use something called PasswordSafe, which was created by an encryption guru.  I have a super-long, complex password that opens this encrypted program which holds all my other passwords.  Technically, the only password I have to remember is one.  And, yes, it is written down in case I forget it (although it’s doubtful I will).

  • Use a managed encryption service.  Like AlertBoot.  If you forget your password, you can call us 24×7 and get your password reset (obviously, we take steps to see if you’re really “you”).  Or, you can do it via the internet.

Encryption is not “tricky.”  Forethought and a little planning can ensure that you use encryption without problems of getting shut out of your own data.

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