In cyber security, nothing is more important than keeping sensitive information private and secure. Everyone should make an effort to do so, from individuals to large organizations.
But what’s the best and easiest way to secure private information, such as files you don’t want anyone to access? Password locking and encryption come to mind. So what is the difference between the two terms?
What is password locking?
Password locking refers to the process of protecting data with a series of symbols. This is a simple but effective access control technique that we all use on a daily basis with the goal of preserving our security and privacy.
Password protection can be used on almost any device or application, and it has evolved significantly over the years. Today, most online platforms force you to use a complicated password that includes uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. Some require users to change their passwords periodically, while others require them to use two-factor or multi-factor authentication.
Naturally, data stored on a device can also be protected with a password. For example, you’ve probably protected your phone with a pattern lock, a PIN or biometric authentication – this can be considered a form of password locking. Similarly, you have most likely also protected your Windows computer with a password.
It is of course also possible to protect individual files and folders with a password. You can do this easily on almost any smartphone, whether you use Android or iPhone. Some apps also allow PIN, pattern or biometric protection – most apps related to online banking, for example, have this feature.
The process is somewhat more complicated on desktop devices. Newer versions of Windows do not have a built-in feature that allows one to password lock a file or folder, but this can be done very easily using free third-party software such as WinRAR. All you need to do is right-click on a file or folder you want to protect, select Send to > Compressed (zipped) folder from the drop-down menu, and then enter a password. It is also possible to password protect files and folders on MacOS.
How encryption works
People often confuse password protection with encryption, and some even use the terms interchangeably. In reality, they are very different things, although there are some similarities between the two.
Simply put, encryption is a method of encoding data in a way that is unreadable by unauthorized parties. This is done using complex mathematical algorithms that encrypt data and ensure that only those with the correct key can decrypt it. So if you encrypt a file or folder, only you can decrypt it. Even if someone hacked your computer, they would have no way to decrypt anything if they didn’t also have access to the decryption key.
The real question is, can data be decrypted without a key? In theory, yes – even the strongest encryption protocols can be broken. In practice, this is highly unlikely. It would take a supercomputer thousands of years to crack a protocol like AES-256. Unless someone discovers a massive vulnerability in AES-256 or a similar protocol, this won’t change anytime soon.
Obviously, encryption is much more secure than password protection. If you handle sensitive information on a daily basis, have legal or financial documents stored on your computer, or simply want to improve your privacy and security, you should strongly consider using encryption. This is not to say that password locking is useless; it’s definitely a step in the right direction, but encryption is a miles better option.
But are there any downsides to protecting your data with encryption, as opposed to password locking? If you lose or forget your password, there are ways to recover it. But if you lose your encryption key, there’s pretty much nothing you can do. Your data will be lost permanently, because it is not possible to decrypt it without a key.
How to encrypt files and folders
Without a doubt, the best way to encrypt files and folders on a desktop device is to use specialized software. There are several great encryption tools that are both capable and easy to use. NordLocker, AxCrypt, Folder Lock, Steganos Data Safe and Advanced Encryption Package are among them. Some of these programs offer free trials and are compatible with both Windows and macOS-based devices.
Alternatively, if spending money on encryption software isn’t an option, you can encrypt your entire drive for free. Since Windows Vista, Microsoft has had a free application called BitLocker. Using it, you can encrypt the entire hard drive or a part of it. It uses the AES encryption algorithm, which means it is very secure.
Mac computers also have a built-in encryption tool. Called FileVault, it’s very intuitive and easy to use, so you should be able to get the hang of it very quickly, even if you’ve never used similar software before. Like BitLocker, FileVault uses AES encryption, so you don’t have to worry about it getting cracked.
However, you can’t use these tools to encrypt individual folders and files – you can only use them to encrypt an entire hard drive or parts of it. This isn’t really a disadvantage, because there’s no good reason not to encrypt your entire system, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind. Commercial encryption software, on the other hand, allows you to encrypt individual files and folders.
As with all encryption methods, the main disadvantage is that there is no way to recover your data if you lose access to your cryptographic key. For this reason, you should consider backing up all important data somewhere, either online or on a separate hard drive.
Encrypt your data to stay safe
Password protection has long been an indispensable security mechanism, and will likely remain so for years to come. But encryption is undoubtedly the best way to protect sensitive information, whether it’s legal documents or just personal photos you don’t want others to see.
If you want to improve your security and privacy for little or no cost, you should definitely consider encrypting your data. And make sure you’re using zero-knowledge encryption, as it’s by far the most secure option.