How to Encrypt Your Files and Why You Should

Make your data unreadable and unusable—until you enter the password

What to Know

  • Turn on Bitlocker (Windows) or FileVault (Mac) or download an encryption app to protect your files and privacy.
  • Encrypt everything on your computer using a free app such as VeraCrypt or TrueCrypt. They require a password to boot up.
  • Encrypt only some of your files using an app such as AxCrypt or 7-Zip to protect a file or archive with a password.

This article explains how to encrypt your files and why you should. It includes information on the apps that come with your computer as well as free apps that protect your entire drive or only selected files.

Why Encrypt Files

When files are encrypted, they're scrambled to the point that they're unusable unless they can be decrypted, which is usually only possible with specific software and knowledge of the password used for encryption.

Encrypt the Whole Hard Drive

Your operating system does not encrypt your files automatically unless you've turned on disk encryption options like Bitlocker (Windows) or FileVault (Mac). File storage encryption is usually turned off by default.

There are plenty of free disk encryption programs that you can install right now to encrypt everything on your computer—the whole OS, all of your videos, documents, pictures, etc. They work by forcing a user to provide the decryption password before the operating system loads.

Some of them, like VeraCrypt, isolate an entirely different version of Windows within the encrypted disk. This process lets you enter two different passwords when your computer boots—one takes you to your regular OS and the other takes you to a version of the operating system that doesn't have any sensitive information. This feature offers a safe way out of a situation where someone forces you to reveal the decryption password.

TrueCrypt is a great option for individual PCs, but if you manage a large number of computers that need whole-disk encryption, check McAfee's Complete Data Protection. McAfee offers both PC and Mac whole disk encryption that can be centrally managed by their ePolicy Orchestrator (ePO) platform.

Other disk encryption programs are useful for building an encrypted file container, which is like a folder or virtual hard drive that stores sensitive files. It can be decrypted to view the files and to add or remove data, and then just as easily encrypted to protect them. This type of encrypted drive is stored on a hard drive but doesn't encrypt the entire disk.

Encrypt Specific Files

If you just need to encrypt certain files and not the entire computer, you can do that, too. Many freeware programs support file encryption, so we'll name just a few.

One really popular way to encrypt single files is with AxCrypt. It changes the file extension to have the AXX suffix, and the file can only be opened with AxCrypt if you provide the password used to encrypt it. You can encrypt files on a Windows or Mac computer and even view them on your phone or tablet with the AxCrypt mobile apps.

7-Zip is another file encryption application that has more than one use. Its primary purpose is for extracting files from formats like ZIP, 7Z, RAR, ISO, etc. However, it can also make new compressed files, and when you do that, you have the option to encrypt the file names and protect the whole archive with a password. It won't survive forensic-level decryption efforts, but to keep files out of non-technical preying eyes, it's a good solution.

Was this page helpful?