How to Encrypt Your Files with TrueCrypt

01
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Download TrueCrypt, a Free File Encryption Program

TrueCrypt file encryption
TrueCrypt is an open source file encryption program. Melanie Pinola

Chances are you have information on your mobile device(s) that you want to keep private or secure. Thankfully, protecting your personal and business information is easy with the free encryption program TrueCrypt.

TrueCrypt is simple to use and the encryption is both transparent and done on-the-fly (i.e., in real time). You can use it to create a password-protected, virtual encrypted disk to store sensitive files and folders, and TrueCrypt can even encrypt entire disk partitions or external storage devices, such as USB flash drives.

So if you haven't done so already, download and install the latest TrueCrypt package for your operating system (the program works on Windows XP, Vista, Mac OS, and Linux). If you want to encrypt a USB flash drive, you can install the program directly to the USB drive.

02
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Open TrueCrypt and Create a New File Container

TrueCrypt encryption program main window
TrueCrypt encryption program main program window. Melanie Pinola

Once you've installed TrueCrypt, launch the software from your programs folder and click the Create Volume button (outlined on the screenshot in blue for clarity) in the main TrueCrypt program window. This will open the "TrueCrypt Volume Creation Wizard."

Your 3 options in the wizard are to: a) create a “file container,” which is a virtual disk to store the files and folders you wish to protect, b) format and encrypt an entire external drive (like a USB memory stick), or c) encrypt your entire system drive/partition.

In this example, we just want to have a place on our internal hard drive to store sensitive information, so we’ll leave the default first choice, Create a file container, selected and click Next >.

03
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Select the Standard or Hidden Volume Type

TrueCrypt volume type window
Step 3: Select the standard TrueCrypt volume, unless you have extreme protection needs. Photo © Melanie Pinola

Once you've chosen to create a file container, you’ll be taken to the "Volume Type" window where you will select the type of encrypted volume you want to create.

Most people will be fine using the default Standard TrueCrypt volume type, as opposed to the other option, Hidden TrueCrypt volume (select the more complex hidden option if you could plausibly be forced to reveal a password, e.g., in cases of extortion. If you are a government spy, however, you probably don't need this "How To" article).

Click Next >.

04
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Select Your File Container Name, Location, and Encryption Method

TrueCrypt volume location window
TrueCrypt volume location window. Melanie Pinola

Click Select File... to choose a filename and location for this file container, which will actually be a file on your hard disk or storage device. Warning: do not select an existing file unless you wish to overwrite that file with your new, empty container. Click Next >.

In the next screen, "Encryption Options," you can also leave the default encryption and hash algorithm, then click Next >. (This window informs you that the default encryption algorithm, AES, is used by US government agencies to classify information up to the Top Secret level. Good enough for me!)

05
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Set the Size of Your File Container

TrueCrypt volume size window
Step 4: enter the file size for your TrueCrypt container. Melanie Pinola

Enter the amount of space you want for the encrypted container and click Next >.

Note: The size you enter here is the actual size the file container will be on your hard drive, regardless of the actual storage space taken up by the files you place in the container. Therefore, carefully plan the size of the TrueCrypt file container before creating it by looking at the total size of the files you plan on encrypting and then adding some extra space for padding. If you make the file size too small, you'll have to create another TrueCrypt container. If you make it too big, you’ll waste some disk space.

06
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Choose a Password for Your File Container

TrueCrypt password window
Enter a strong password that you will not forget. Photo © Melanie Pinola

Choose and confirm your password, then click Next >.

Tips/Notes:

  • Instead of using a simple password when setting up the TrueCrypt file, use a unique long passphrase you will easily remember that also contains a complex combination of characters (e.g., "My first teacher's name was Mrs. Smith").
  • TrueCrypt will warn you if you enter a password with fewer than 20 characters.
  • Note that if you forget the password there is no way to retrieve it (that's the point of the program after all). As the TrueCrypt developers state: "The only way to recover your files is to try to 'crack' the password or the key, but it could take thousands or millions of years depending on the length and quality of the password/keyfiles, on software/hardware efficiency, and other factors." In other words, choose a password you won't forget!

07
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Let the Encryption Begin!

TrueCrypt on-the-fly encryption
TrueCrypt doing its on-the-fly encryption. Photo © Melanie Pinola

This is the fun part: now you just have to move your mouse randomly for a few seconds and then click Format. The random mouse movements help increase the strength of the encryption. The program will show you a progress bar as it creates the container.

TrueCrypt will let you know when the encrypted container has been created successfully. You can then close the "Volume Creation Wizard."

08
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Use Your Encrypted File Container to Store Sensitive Data

TrueCrypt main window
Mount your created file container as a new drive letter. Photo © Melanie Pinola

Click on the Select File… button in the main program window to open the encrypted file container you just created.

Highlight an unused drive letter and choose Mount to open that container as a virtual disk on your computer (you’ll be prompted for the password you created). Your container will then be mounted as a drive letter on your computer and you will be able to move files and folders you wish to protect into that virtual drive. (For example, on a Windows PC, go to the “My Computer” directory and cut and paste files/folders into the new TrueCrypt drive letter you’ll find listed there.)

Tip: Make sure you click "Dismount" in TrueCrypt before removing encrypted external drives like your USB disk.