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Encrypt your devices

Once a year you should take time to review and audit your digital hygiene to make sure you’re doing everything possible to protect yourself online. First, make sure you know what we mean when we discuss privacy and security online. Second, take control of your passwords. Third, use two factor authentication to add a layer of protection on top of your passwords. Fourth, you should make sure you’re always backing up your information and devices. Fifth, you should clean up your browser extensions to protect yourself from unseen threats. Sixth, you should examine the social logins you use for tools, apps, and accounts. Sixth, you should take steps to protect your connection to the Internet.

In this post, we’ll discuss the topic of encryption, and why you should encrypt all of the devices you use.

What is encryption?

Encryption is the process of taking information that makes sense and scrambling it up to turn it into gibberish. You are turning your valuable data (text, images, audio, video) into digital garbage that doesn’t make any sense.

When you want to use the data, you’ll decrypt your content using a method known as a cipher. The cipher usually involves a key to make the process possible. A cipher can be as simple as swapping out one letter for another. It could also include substituting letters for numbers or symbols.

The cipher lets the device or platform know that you’re a trusted party, it converts the garbage back into your valuable collection of cat GIFs.

Why encrypt?

If someone has access to your device, they can access all of your data. If they have physical access to your device, they can access your data even if they do not have your password. Unless your device is encrypted, they can have open access to everything you own.

As security expert Bruce Schneier commented on his blog: “Encryption should be enabled for everything by default, not a feature you turn on only if you’re doing something you consider worth protecting.”

Please do not subscribe to the narrative that some people have about their data “not being important enough” to encrypt. There is also a mindset that I don’t need to encrypt because “I have nothing to hide.” Scheier continues on his blog: “This is important. If we only use encryption when we’re working with important data, then encryption signals that data’s importance. If only dissidents use encryption in a country, that country’s authorities have an easy way of identifying them. But if everyone uses it all of the time, encryption ceases to be a signal.”

This ultimately becomes a question about whether you think your device and your data is valuable. Until you’re hacked, you underestimate the value the data on your device (all of your contacts, emails, passwords, documents) has to criminals or those that mean you harm. By encrypting, you’re building a wall on your phone or computer that keeps out anyone that isn’t you.

How do I encrypt my devices?

The good news is, encryption has become so important that a lot of devices now include it by default. Most times you don’t necessarily need to do anything to stay protected.

iOS has been encrypting data for years. This means that your iPad and iPhones are automatically encrypting your data all of the time. This is provided that you have an iPhone 3GS or iPod touch (3rd generation) or later. Encryption on your iOS devices needs to connect with the six digit pin that you use to unlock your device. Read this brief from EFF to get more insight on how to protect your device.

Android phones and tablets introduced full-device encryption with Android Gingerbread (version 2.3.x) and it has been undergoing changes since then. On some higher end devices running Lollipop (version 5.x) and beyond, it is usually enabled out of the box. On some older models and lower-end devices…you’ll need to enable it yourself. It’ll take a little bit of time and a full battery…but it’s worth it..and worth making sure that you have it enabled.

Macs offer great encryption that is built in, but you’ll need to enable it yourself. You’ll also want to consider encrypting external drives that you might use for backups or extra files. This is also a feature built in to the Mac OS (operating system). Finally, FileVault, the tool on Macs that allows you to encrypt, will also allow you to encrypt specific files or folders if you so choose. You’ll need to use a password to decrypt your Mac….don’t lose it. You’ll also be given a “recovery key” or a string of letters and numbers to use to decrypt your data in case you forget your password. Copy this down in a safe place…and don’t lose that either. :)

Windows PCs that ship with Windows 10 automatically have “Device Encryption” enabled. This service started with Windows 8.1 and it have been evolving ever since. Keep in mind that you cannot assume that your Windows PC will automatically be encrypted. You should also know that if you’re using a device from an organization or institution (school), they often utilize device encryption, but your passwords are uploaded to servers owned by Microsoft or the organization. That means they can get in whenever they want. Review this post from How To Geek for more granular advice on encrypting your Windows device.

Chromebooks run on Chrome OS and are regularly lauded as ultra-secure devices because Chrome OS automatically updates, sandboxes web pages and apps (restricts bad apps from harming good ones), verifies your boot, and encrypts data. They indicate that files saved in Google Drive are encrypted by default. Remember that everything is stored in the cloud and there is little to no data stored on the Chromebook. If you use a Chromebook, make sure you enable two factor authentication and regularly check your security panel for your Google Account. This post also shares more guidance on how to make sure you maximize privacy and security on your device.

Balance between security and convenience

Device and data security is of the utmost importance. It is also your responsibility as you choose to operate these devices. Thankfully, developers are making services like encryption much easier to use with our computers and mobile devices.

The challenge is that security and privacy is always a balancing act between ease of use, and total security. The more layers that you add in to protect yourself, means more inconvenience for you as the user. As an example, it would be much easier for me to not have doors and locks on my house, and just enter easily. Yet, I choose to lock my doors at night, turn off the lights, and turn on the alarm in the house. These are steps that we follow to make sure our home is private and secure throughout the day.

We need to make these same considerations as we work with our devices. New features will come out to make us want to purchase new devices. These include fingerprint readers, face scans, eyeball scans, etc. We need to consider how secure these are, and ultimately they might not be that secure. Keep in mind that security is a mix of something you know (e.g. a pin), something you have (e.g., a phone), and something you are (e.g., a fingerprint). If someone has your phone, and they have your fingerprint (or can make you give it), then they only need your unlock pin…unless you choose not to provide it.

The privacy and security of your data is ultimately up to you. Be responsible.


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Originally published at W. Ian O’Byrne.