How to Encrypt the Data on Your Android Phone or iPhone

Keep the information on your cell phone safe with these easy steps

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Security and privacy are a hot topic these days, with government snooping, big company data leaks, and hacking on the rise. One important step you can take to protect your information is to encrypt it. This is especially true for devices that tend to get lost or stolen--such as your cell phone. Here's how to set up encryption on an Android device or iPhone/iPad.

Should You Encrypt Your Phone or Tablet? Pros and Cons

First, you might be wondering why you should even bother with encrypting your mobile device, especially if you don't store much or any personal information on it.

If you already have a lock screen with a passcode (or other unlock measure), isn't that good enough?

The answer is encryption does more than just bar a person from accessing information on your cell phone, as the lock screen does. You can think of the lock screen as a lock on a door: Without the key, uninvited guests can't come in and steal all your belongings.

Encrypting your data takes it a step further. It makes the information unreadable--in essence, useless--even if somehow a hacker got through the lock screen. (Using the door analogy, even if a thief comes in through the window, encryption is like creating a mirage so all the things in your home look like they're in a super uncrackable safe.) Software and hardware vulnerabilities that can let someone do that are found from time to time, though they're usually quickly fixed. It's possible for determined attackers to hack lock screen passwords, Stack Exchange user Thomas Pornin explains.

The pro of strong encryption is that extra protection. (It's also why you should encrypt your computer files with TrueCrypt.) About.com's Network Security site has a good primer on encryption.

The downside to encrypting your mobile data is, at least on Android devices, it'll take longer for you to log into your device because each time you do it has to decrypt all the data.

Also, once you decide to encrypt your Android device, there's no way to change your mind, other than factory resetting your phone.

For many people, that's worth it to keep personal information truly private and secured. Also, mobile professionals working in certain industries--finance and healthcare, for example--encryption isn't optional. All devices that store or access consumers' personally identifiable information have to be secured or else you're not in compliance with the law.

So here, finally, are the steps needed to encrypt your mobile device.

Encrypt Your iPhone or iPad Data

Step One: Set up a passcode to lock your device under Settings > General > Passcode Lock.

That's it! Wasn't that easy? The PIN or passcode not only creates a lock screen, it also encrypts the iPhone data or iPad data.

Not all of it, however. The only things that are encrypted in this dead-easy method are your iMessages, mail messages and attachments, and data from some apps that have data encryption.

You definitely should have a passcode set up, though, and not just the default 4-digit one. Use a stronger, longer passcode or passphrase by turning off "Simple Passcode" in your Passcode Lock settings. Even just two digits more will make your iPhone much more secure.

Encrypt Your Android Smartphone or Tablet

On Android, the lock screen and the device encryption are two separate, though related things. You can't encrypt your Android device without the screen lock turned on, and the encryption password is tied to the screen lock passcode.

Step One: Plug in your charger, since the encryption takes an hour or more.

Step Two: Go to Settings > Security and look for the "Encrypt phone" option.

Step Three: You'll need to set a password of at least six characters, containing at least one number. Since this will also become your screen unlock code, most people will probably choose one that's easy to enter.

Step Four: Go get a cup of coffee or watch an episode of Breaking Bad while your phone gets encrypted.

Note that in the Security settings screen you can also choose to encrypt an SD card.