Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

Encryption

Protecting Your Data

Portability Increases Risk

Only a few years ago, data encryption was relatively unknown to most computer users. They realized that governments and corporations used this protection, but why did they need it?

Most people only had a desktop computer and connected mostly using a phone modem. Interactions with the Internet were relatively brief and their computers only left home (or the office) when going to the repair shop.

Today, more folks are using laptops as well as smart phones and other mobile devices often containing a lot of personal information as do the USB drives and thumb drives we used to store and transfer data. All are at greater risk for loss or theft because they are portable.

Data Encryption Moves Mainstream

Windows 7 Ultimate includes BitLocker Drive Encryption and the Encrypting File System. This capability is easily obtained for other Windows versions by installing third-party software such as ZoneAlarm's DataLock Hard Drive Encryption.

But how secure is that encryption software?

Snowden Reveals Massive NSA Access

Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, revealed that NSA has backdoors into virtually all operating systems and commercial encryption software — realtime access into anybody's computer was a reality.

Governments and corporations are using the threat of terrorism to spy on their own citizens without any oversight from independent third parties and changing laws that protect your privacy so they become ineffective. Everything they have is a state secret, but nothing of yours is. It is this morally-bankrupt status that Snowden felt compelled to reveal.

What Can You Do? Five Recommendations

Don't be fooled that your communications are uninteresting — that only the “bad guys” are targets.

The NSA is spending incredible amounts of money to ensure that it can see into your computer, compromise your network and to record your phone calls, then storing the information for later study.

In NSA surveillance: A guide to staying secure, Bruce Schneier listed five pieces of advice:

  1. Hide in the network. Implement hidden services. Use Tor to anonymize yourself. Yes, the NSA targets Tor users, but it's work for them. The less obvious you are, the safer you are.
  2. Encrypt your communications. Use TLS. Use IPsec. Again, while it's true that the NSA targets encrypted connections — and it may have explicit exploits against these protocols — you're much better protected than if you communicate in the clear.
  3. Assume that while your computer can be compromised, it would take work and risk on the part of the NSA — so it probably isn't. If you have something really important, use an air gap. Since I started working with the Snowden documents, I bought a new computer that has never been connected to the internet. If I want to transfer a file, I encrypt the file on the secure computer and walk it over to my internet computer, using a USB stick. To decrypt something, I reverse the process. This might not be bulletproof, but it's pretty good.
  4. Be suspicious of commercial encryption software, especially from large vendors. My guess is that most encryption products from large US companies have NSA-friendly back doors, and many foreign ones probably do as well. It's prudent to assume that foreign products also have foreign-installed backdoors. Closed-source software is easier for the NSA to backdoor than open-source software. Systems relying on master secrets are vulnerable to the NSA, through either legal or more clandestine means.
  5. Try to use public-domain encryption that has to be compatible with other implementations. For example, it's harder for the NSA to backdoor TLS than BitLocker, because any vendor's TLS has to be compatible with every other vendor's TLS, while BitLocker only has to be compatible with itself, giving the NSA a lot more freedom to make changes. And because BitLocker is proprietary, it's far less likely those changes will be discovered. Prefer symmetric cryptography over public-key cryptography. Prefer conventional discrete-log-based systems over elliptic-curve systems; the latter have constants that the NSA influences when they can.

I strongly recommend reading the entire article for the context and to understand what Schneier is saying.

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Encryption Software

There are a number of good encryption solutions. Pretty Good Privacy (now owned by Symantec) was one of the original products.

Folder Encryption Solutions

SafeHouse Explorer

SafeHouse Explorer is a free encryption solution for disks and memory sticks.

  • SafeHouse Explorer uses passwords and maximum-strength 256-bit advanced encryption to completely hide and defend your sensitive files, including photos, videos, spreadsheets, databases and just about any other kind of file that you might have.

Cypherix

Cypherix has a number of products including corporate solutions.

  • Cryptainer LE a free disk encryption software, creates multiple 25 MB of encrypted and password protected drives/containers.
  • Secure IT encrypts all your files and folders. All you need to do is select a file you want to encrypt and assign a password.
  • Cryptainer PE protects your data by creating multiple encrypted vaults for all your files and folders using 448-bit strong encryption without changing the way you work.

Drive-Encryption Solutions

TrueCrypt

TrueCrypt was a free open-source disk encryption software for Windows 7/Vista/XP, Mac OS X and Linux.

WARNING: Using TrueCrypt is not secure

The development of TrueCrypt was ended in 5/2014 after Microsoft terminated support of Windows XP. Windows 8/7/Vista and later offer integrated support for encrypted disks and virtual disk images. Such integrated support is also available on other platforms (click here for more information). You should migrate any data encrypted by TrueCrypt to encrypted disks or virtual disk images supported on your platform.
TrueCrypt site

The TrueCrypt site recommends migrating from TrueCrypt to BitLocker. Instructions are provided.

FreeOTFE

FreeOTFE is a free, open source, "on-the-fly" transparent disk encryption program for PCs and PDAs that allows you to encrypt the entire drive.

  • Supports all versions of Windows from Windows 2000 onwards (including Windows 7).
  • No need to install it; making it ideal for use on USB memory drives, etc.
  • Highly portable. Not only does FreeOTFE offer portable mode, eliminating the need for it to be installed before use, it also offers FreeOTFE Explorer — a system which allows FreeOTFE volumes to be accessed not only without installing any software, but also on PCs where no administrator rights are available. This makes it ideal for use with USB flash drives, and when visiting Internet Cafês, where PCs are available for use, but only as a standard user.

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More About Encryption

These sites have useful information on encryption:

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www.RussHarvey.bc.ca/resources/encryption.html
Updated:October 15, 2014

Protecting your data

Encryption Principles

What Does It Do?

Data encryption solutions can vary from encrypting specific files or your whole drive. This protection is not dependent upon Windows security — it works even if someone removes your hard drive.

Which is best depends upon the nature of the information on your computer and how it is used.

Laptops More Vulnerable

A desktop computer is stationary and, unless you haven't secured the location, is not particularly vulnerable. Laptops, on the other hand, are more likely to be used in unsecured locations (at least part of the time).

If you encrypt the entire drive of your laptop this ensures that all your data is safe if the computer is lost or stolen (even if the drive is removed for data extraction).

Alternatively, if only certain folders contain vulnerable information, you can simply protect those folders.

How Does It Work?

Usually the encryption software starts with Windows (or your particular operating system). You are required to login to use the encrypted information (or when opening certain folders if only specific folders are encrypted).

Once you have done this, operating the computer should be the same as it is with an unencrypted computer.

On modern computers with sufficient RAM and other resources, the overhead of running this software should be minimal. Older computers may suffer slowdowns or jerky operation if there are insufficient resources to run the encryption software properly.

Security Relies on Passwords

The security of this solution is dependent upon the quality of your passwords. You should take a moment to review the qualities that make a good password and you'll want to ensure your password isn't compromised.

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Related Resources

Related resources on this site:

or check the resources index.

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