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Why We All Need to Use Encryption to Protect Ourselves From Cybercrime

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Encryption originates from the Spartan’s who first used wooden cylinders with a strip of parchment wrapped around it to encode secret messages during battle. In essence, it scrambles our data and requires a password to unscramble it.

With rapid advances in technology and computing power in recent years, encryption is more powerful than ever and also now available to anyone with an internet connection – good or bad. There are many encryption algorithms but the most secure is AES 256 (Advanced Encryption Standard). This is the adopted encryption standard used by the US and UK militaries…so, as members of the public we have access to similar levels of encryption that governments and militaries use to protect their data!

The Power of Encryption

To give you an idea of how difficult it would be to break this type of encryption, see the below example (warning maths alert!)...

AES-256 is one of the most secure encryption algorithms today and one of the most powerful super-computers in the world is a basketball court sized computer in China called the Tianhe-2 Supercomputer. It has a processing power of around 34 petaflops which could guess 33.86 quadrilion passwords per second! Even if you had this kind of processing power, it would still take approximately 5.42^52 years to crack an AES-256 password. To put that into perspective, the age of the universe is only 14 billion (1.4^10) years. You would need 1038 Tianhe-2 Supercomputers (100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000 - one hundred undecillion) running simultaneously for the duration of the age of the universe to come close to cracking an AES-256 password...

Unfortunately, the power of encryption does have its drawbacks…if you’ve protected the business case for your patented new business idea with AES-256 encryption and you’ve forgotten the password (and not stored it in a password manager or cryptic book), just consider it as good as deleted! But remember, encryption is only as strong as the password you use! If you use a 4 character password you might as well not bother…assuming we’ve used a decent passphrase we have one hell of a weapon in our arsenal!

Who Needs to Use Encryption?

With this kind of protection available to us, we should definitely be using it. It’s particularly useful for those who travel a lot or those handling sensitive information (e.g. HR data, commercially sensitive, secret government docs, private media, etc.). Even if you don’t do either of these I would recommend using it anyway for if your house gets burgled or if you lose your device, you’ll at least be safe in the knowledge no one can access your data.

When it comes to using it, we can use it in two ways…to either protect our devices as a whole (hard drive / boot level encryption) or to protect specific folders / files.

Hard Drive (Boot Level) Encryption (preferred)

Hard drive encryption protects the entirety of your device. It encrypts everything each time you shut down. There are ways around screen lock passwords but if you have hard drive encryption you know that everything on your device is protected if you lose it or it’s stolen. It involves putting in a password even before the operating system (e.g. Windows) loads up. My recommendations are;

  • Apple FileVault 2 – for mac users, this comes as standard. It’s free (with the laptop), integrated and easy to use. I love it! (Free)
  • Windows Bitlocker – the equivalent of Apple’s FileVault 2 but for windows users. It comes as standard with the Professional or Enterprise edition of Windows 8 or 10, or the Ultimate version of Windows 7 . Again, uses AES-256 and has for all intents and purposes been certified as secure. (Free)
  • Veracrypt – if for whatever reason you don’t like either of the above, then there is a third option – Veracrypt. Works for both Windows and Mac, supports AES-256 and has the same certification as Bitlocker (Free).
  • KYMS (Keep Your Media Safe) – for smart phones and tablets use an encryption based secure vault app like KYMS, as suggested in the chapter on Online Privacy & Social Media.

This is by far the most preferable option as your entire device is encrypted and you don't need to manage any other devices (such as an external hard drive).

Top Tip: when you’re using hard drive encryption, never leave your machine in hibernate/sleep mode for extended periods of time. Always shut it down completely because it is possible for an attacker to extract your encryption passphrase from temporary memory files available in hibernate mode!

Folder/File Encryption

If you do only have a specific folder or files on your device that you’d like to protect you can use folder/file level encryption to just protect those specific items. All it requires is for you to enter a passphrase each time you want to open that file/folder – not too much admin for things you don’t need access to on a daily basis like photos of your identities (passport, driving license and birth certificate), personal investment information or private media. I recommend using FolderLock7 for windows (£30) and Hider2 for macs (£19.99). They tend to integrate with the mouse menus, so just right click and select which file or folder you’d like to encrypt, enter a password and it’ll do the rest!

Encryption & International Travel

Did you know encryption is so powerful that some countries ban it altogether? The Wassenar Arrangement is an international agreement between participating countries that permit us to carry encrypted devices into their countries. Although very unlikely, these countries can theoretically request us to decrypt our data for inspection purposes so be prepared for this. Countries who signed this agreement and allow encrypted devices include;

Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States.

The purpose of these laws is to assist authorities in spot checking and catching criminals with illegal material, e.g. child porn. Personally, I have never come across or even heard of anyone being asked to decrypt a device for inspection, however, that’s not to say it won’t happen.

The likes of Russia, Ukraine, China and India all technically require a license for you to bring an encrypted device into the country, so maybe consider leaving it at home or just be prepared to decrypt it if customs officials ask. If you are entering a nation with stringent restrictions, I would recommend the following workarounds;

  • Upload the data you need to a secure cloud service so it doesn’t need to be on your travelling devices.
  • Remove anything from your encrypted drive that is sensitive and you wouldn’t want falling into the wrong hands, i.e. commercially sensitive documents. Keep it at home on a USB or external hard drive.
  • Use a product like File Vault2, Bitlocker or VeraCrypt to create a hidden folder on your hard drive. To anyone but the best professionals this will go undetected and your secret will be safe.

Hopefully you’ve found that useful. If you have any comments please get in contact!

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