How to Encrypt Your Hard Drive

by Denis Metev

Your hard drive is the physical place where all your files are stored – documents, movies, books, songs – everything. Everything is in there, ready for you to access it.

How Important Is It To Encrypt Your Hard Drive, Though? Do You Really Need to Do It?

Your device will continue to work properly without encrypting your hard drive… until it doesn’t. You won’t know you need it until you can’t do anything about it.

Sounds pretty nasty, I’m sure. As every doctor can tell you, prevention is better than the cure. There is this recent study that shows how valid this is in our little situation as well. The study, released by the Ponemon Institute, was titled “The 2019 Global Encryption Trends Study”. 

Its results show 45% of the surveyed organizations have an encryption policy, which is an all-time high among enterprises. Data is important, securing it – even more.

What Is Encryption?

The concept of hard drive encryption is simple enough. The encryption process uses sophisticated mathematical functions to protect the data from anyone without the appropriate password or key. This provides an additional layer of security, preventing hackers from entering.

If you send an encrypted Word document to a friend, they will need to decrypt it first. Otherwise, they will only see some random mumbo-jumbo. Unless they’re an experienced mathematician.

AES or Advanced Encryption Standard

AES is a symmetric algorithm for encryption. It is one of the most well-known encryption methodologies and probably the best in use. It was created by two Belgian cryptographers in 1998 and was eventually adopted by the US government and used worldwide as a staple of encryption.

AES is the first and only publicly available cipher, approved by the NSA (National Security Agency) for top secret information. If it’s good enough for Uncle Sam, it should be good enough for everyone.

You need to know that every time a file is written to the drive, special software encrypts it automatically. While reading the file, the software decrypts it, leaving all other data on the drive encrypted.

On the surface, you won’t be able to tell if a computer is ciphered. You may experience a slow down while working, but even that is not a given.

Your personal files are encrypted

Does A Whole Disk Encryption Slow Down my PC?

Basically, everything you install on your computer may and will have an effect on its performance. The question is whether the change will be noticeable.

Your CPU (Central Processing Unit), the encryption program you use, and the type of hard drive are key here. They will determine whether or not full disk encryption will slow your PC.

It generally depends on your computer (memory, clock, connections, protocols, etc.) and its speed of processing. You can make an analogy with hiking boots – they do weigh more than regular sports shoes and the extra weight does slow you down a bit. That said, the additional protection is very much welcome.

If you were to go hiking barefoot you would be faster… but for how long? Your feet will give up a lot sooner, making the whole endeavor meaningless.

Alright, if encrypting your hard drive is that useful… how can you actually do it?

How to Encrypt Your Hard Drive

Whole disk encryption might sound like a complicated process, but it’s really not that hard. All you need are your trusty encryption tools and a flash drive or CD – in order to store a backup.

Make sure to keep your passphrase or recovery key in a safe place, because if you lose or forget it – there will be no way to recover your data. It’s like the only key to the basement, where you keep everything of value. The key is unique, so if you lose it, you will need to break the door to enter the basement.

Except when it comes to encryption, breaking the algorithm is almost impossible.

Windows – Encrypt Hard Drive

There are many encryption tools available, so it may be a bit confusing to pick the right one. Let’s take a look at a few.

BitLocker

is one of the most recognizable encryption softwares out there. And the best part is it’s completely free to use! On top of that, BitLocker drive encryption is rock solid, since it uses the aforementioned AES algorithm.

But wait, there’s more! The tool comes free with the latest Windows OS, so you just need to click a button to turn it on.

First step is to check if you actually have BitLocker. Simply right-click on one of your drives and then choose the “turn on BitLocker” command. If you do not have such an option, it’s likely you have an older version of Windows and would need to look for another solution.

In case you do have that option, the next thing to do is to choose a method to unlock. Afterward, backup your recovery key – you can save it on your USB drive, Microsoft account, to a file or even print it out.

After you’ve saved your key, you must choose what will happen with the files on your drive. You can either encrypt the whole drive, including the free space or only encrypt the disk files already in use. Otherwise, BitLocker will automatically encrypt all new files, as you add them.

Note that, if you are a Windows 10 user, you will see an additional screen letting you choose an encryption method. If you’re using Windows 7 or 8, just skip ahead to the next step. Windows 10 introduced a new method for encryption XTS-AES, which provides enhanced performance over AES in Windows 7 and 8.

So, if you are sure you will only be using Windows 10, select the “New encryption mode”. If you think you may need to switch to older versions of Windows, go ahead with the “Compatibility mode”.

We’re Drawing Towards the End, I Promise.

Now that you’ve selected the encryption mode, hit the “Next” button and now you can click “Start encrypting”.

The process itself may take anywhere from a couple of seconds to minutes or longer. It depends on the amount of data you’re encrypting and if you’re encrypting free space as well. 

If you have chosen to encrypt your system drive, you’ll need to run a BitLocker system check and reboot your PC. Just make sure to select the option. After the restart, Windows will encrypt the drive.

In case you want to encrypt a removable drive, Windows will not require a restart and will encrypt immediately.

That Wasn’t Too Hard, Was It, but How Do You Unlock Your Drive?

For an encrypted system drive, Windows will ask you to unlock the drive – via password, key or connecting your USB. To unlock an encrypted removable drive, simply type in the password, when you connect it to your PC.

DiskCryptor

is another free encryption tool. You can install it on every Microsoft OS from Windows 2000 onward. It’s easy, convenient and works extremely well. 

DiskCryptor is also lightweight, which helps avoid a noticeable impact on your system performance. It’s a good tool both for beginners and experienced users and only uses 1MB of disk space when installed. 

With DiskCryptor you can choose between AES, Two-fish and Serpent as methods for encryption. The software is specialized in encrypting sectors. This means that full disk encryption could take a while. Reviews suggest that the tool is awesome for encrypting drives and smaller parts of your system. 

For example, a 64 GB USB flash drive will be fully encrypted by the time you finish your breakfast. Decryption will be considerably slower though, so you can go grab a cup of tea and a good book.

VeraCrypt

is yet another free software – YAY! You can use it on Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems. Just like BitLocker, it uses AES; however, it goes one step beyond, utilizing the Two-fish and Serpent cyphers as well. 

The tool is constantly being updated, so improvements in terms of functionality and security keep coming up. And it’s open source, so everyone can contribute! VeraCrypt is very flexible and can be used for both full disk encryption and just encrypting a single file. 

VeraCrypt vs. BitLocker

Both tools are quite similar and the truth is you can use them combined to achieve the maximum efficiency. The biggest difference between them is actually who can use them. VeraCrypt can run on practically every operating system. BitLocker, developed by Microsoft, is the most commonly preferred choice since it’s already in your computer by default (unless you’re using an older version of Windows or an entirely different OS).

Power-users may prefer to use VeraCrypt, because it uses several encryption algorithms and is open-source – which means anyone can apply changes to it. Now don’t get me wrong, VeraCrypt is still easy enough to operate, but it does require more effort than the pre-installed BitLocker.

Let’s See What It’s All About.

In this particular case, we’ll encrypt a flash drive. The process is similar to all other types of encryption.

1. Steps 1 and 2 show you how to create a volume. Remember to select a drive too.

VeraCrypt guide steps 1 and 2 2. Steps 3 and 4 are all about choosing the volume type and location.

VeraCrypt guide steps 3 and 43. Steps 5 and 6 will see you entering the volume creation mode and encryption options. Stick with the default settings, unless you have a good reason to change them.
VeraCrypt guide steps 5 and 6
4. Step 7 is for selecting the best password and step 8 will provide a fun game to play with your mouse.

VeraCrypt guide steps 7 and 85. Steps 9 and 10 are the start of the process. Do backup anything important before beginning to format.

VeraCrypt guide steps 9 and 106. 11 and 12 are the final steps. Congratulations!

VeraCrypt guide steps 11 and 12

Comparison of Disk Encryption Software

is THE article, if you’re a tech-savvy person, who wants to get to know everything about encrypting software.

In a nutshell, both softwares are excellent and will serve you well. You can’t go wrong with either one. 

Encrypt Hard Drive – Mac

What about yourself, as a Mac user, you ask? Well, FileVault already exists in Mac environment. You have the option to enable it to start preventing unauthorized access. Doing so is very easy, too. You need to click on the apple icon, select “system preferences”, then click “security and privacy”.

Click on the padlock icon and enter your administrator username and password and click “Turn on FileVault”. 

Next step is to choose how you want to be able to unlock your disk and reset your password. The encryption occurs in the background as you use your Mac, and only while your Mac is awake and plugged into AC power. Any new files that you create are then automatically encrypted as they are saved to your startup disk.

After the process is done, you will need to restart your Mac. From there on, you’ll need to enter your password every time you start up your device – no account is permitted to login automatically.

And should you want to turn FileVault off, just follow the same steps for turning it on.

But let me share a secret with you. You can actually go without any encryption software. Seriously. What you need is a

Self-Encrypting Drive or SED

It does the job, all while hiding in the shadows. It has a circuit built into the disk drive controller chip, so all data is encrypted and decrypted to the magnetic media automatically. 

And it’s just a regular hard drive – no yellow lights or fancy designs. The encryption is absolutely invisible to the user. You just give the drive a password and from there on you are best buddies. 

SED works with an encryption key called MEK (Media Encryption Key). To lock and unlock a drive, it needs another key, known as KEK (Key Encryption Key), which you have to provide. What are best friends for, after all?

We’ll be hearing more about self-encrypting drives in the future. They are currently on the upper end of the scale, speaking of price, but it’s definitely worth the investment, I would say. SED are secure, reliable and easy to use – go for it.

Flash Drive and External HDD Encryption

Securing your external drives is essential. The USB is a small and convenient way to carry your data everywhere. That also makes it easy to be stolen or lost. By encrypting it, you’re sure your data is safe.

Encryption on disks and flash drives

Flash Drive Encryption: Hardware or Software?

Luckily, you can buy a flash drive with integrated encryption software. Of course, it will cost you a bit more – anywhere from $20 to $100. These drives use a physical pin pad and often come with features like automatic overwrites, in case you enter an incorrect pin too many times. This method is not immune to failure, however.  

Software Encryption is Better

Besides being much cheaper or even free, software tools are just as effective as the hardware solution. The only major flaw is the time it takes to encrypt your files. It also requires a bit more tinkering, but no worries. Here’s a complete guide on how to encrypt your flash drive on every OS. 

Encrypted External Hard

The process is pretty much the same as with USB drive encryption. I won’t fill your head with the same information. You can always check this article, in case you’re having trouble with encrypting.

By This Point, You Are Already Adept at Encryption

You know how to encrypt your hard drive, the benefits of different software tools and why it’s important to keep your data encrypted.

FAQ:

Q: Should You Encrypt Your Hard Drive?

A: Absolutely! The most common misconception is that you only need to encrypt your laptop because it’s easier to steal or lose. It’s worth encrypting desktop PCs as well. You may not think you have something important in there, but why risk exposing your private and business-related data?

Q: How Do I Encrypt My Hard Drive in Windows 10?

A: It’s easy enough! Grab a cup of coffee with a new friend – BitLocker, VeraCrypt, DiskCryptor. Follow the instructions, relax and let the software do the math.

Q: How Long Does It Take to Encrypt Hard Drive?

A: The time ranges from a couple of seconds to hours. It depends on the amount of data you are encrypting. Note that you can still use your PC during the process, though it may be slower than usual.

Q: How Does HDD Encryption Work?

A: All your data and files get converted into mathematical algorithms. They are visible in human language only when you enter the correct password/key.

Q: Why Does BitLocker Take so Long to Encrypt?

A: Microsoft estimates that BitLocker encryption can take roughly 1 minute per every 500mb encrypted. If your disk is 500 GB, it may take around 5-6 hours for full encryption.

Q: Which Is the Best Free Software for Encryption?

A: There are a lot of free software out there and you will generally do well if you choose any of them. That said, BitLocker and VeraCrypt are two of the most popular tools, but there’s also DiskCryptor, LastPass, etc.

Q: How Do I Encrypt Hard Drive on Mac? 

A: Good news! Just like Windows, Mac comes with built-in free encryption software. FileVault will handle all your ciphering needs without any advanced setup. 

Q: Is Hardware or Software Encryption Better? 

A: Software encryption tools are more popular, especially given the fact that there are several good free options like BitLocker and VeraCrypt. Still, a self-encrypting drive is an extremely practical way to go, although it’s not that popular.

Q: How Many Cryptographers Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?

A: ^T2u# 5 e| Z Lj lz jC#M. Just kidding, cryptographers can see in the dark. 

Q: What Does It Mean to Encrypt a Hard Drive?

A: You can tell me after reading the article.

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