If your passwords are not encrypted, then you are leaving your data open to hackers. Encryption, simply put, converts readable strings of text into a secret code. Simple encryption might be “banana” as “21141141” where 1 = A, 2 = B, and 14 = N. Obviously encryption codes are well beyond this numeric system, but the concept is the same. When passwords are encrypted they are passed through a code that stores them in this illegible format and then returns them back to a readable format when being accessed for credentials.
Computers are far better at quickly identifying patterns and replacing them with the original characters so that a human can read the information. Even a basic program could quickly solve the example given above, and lucky for us encryption has gotten significantly more complex. It is now based on mathematical methods. The key take away from this introduction to encryption is that data cannot be easily decrypted if you do not first know the encryption method. Given enough time a computer could eventually decrypt a code, but it would not be anywhere near as fast as a computer that already knows the encryption method.
Just as a locked door won’t always deter a burglar, so encrypted data will not always deter hackers. Some forms of encryption are much stronger. Using the door analogy, it would be like installing a security system in your home which is more likely to deter low-level burglars. Just as a home without a security system is more likely to be the target of a home invasion, so unencrypted information is more likely to be hacked.
Many common operating platforms offer local data encryption. This can be useful if you have personal information stored on your computer. This can be helpful if you have a list of credit card numbers, social security numbers, or other personal information. On Windows 7 for Business, BitLocker can encrypt your data. FileVault is Mac OS X Lion’s encryption software. There are third-party solutions for data encryption, but you may end up paying for those applications. A few mentionable applications are:
- GNU Privacy Guard (Windows/Mac/Linux, Free)
- Disk Utility (Mac, Free)
- TrueCrypt (Windows/Mac/Linux, Free)
- 7-zip (Windows, Free)
- AxCrypt (Windows, Free)
In our ever-more wireless world it is important to note the issues of Wi-Fi. It takes very little skill and technology to hack a Wi-Fi connection. Thus, any information entered into the device that is connected can be harvested. Have you ever noticed a website with HTTPS:// rather than HTTP:// before the website URL? What does that “S” mean and why is it important? The “S” indicates a protocol for encrypting data sent between sites. This greatly reduces the security risks. There is an application called HTTPS:// Everywhere by EEF, which will encrypt your communications with Chrome, Firefox, and Opera. With the release of version 2.0, EEF warned users there are unexpected weaknesses in many routers, firewalls, and VPN devices. App users can detect if the network being accessed has these vulnerabilities.
Remember that even the strongest passwords and encrypted data can still be hacked. It is important that you do everything you can to protect yourself and your data from malicious hackers.
(featured image by Blue Coat Photos)