How to Choose Encryption Software
The top performers in our review are Folder Lock, the Gold Award winner; Secure IT, the Silver Award winner; and Kruptos 2 Pro, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing encryption software to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these nine products.
It isn't uncommon to see news articles about data breaches of businesses and corporations with sensitive information, such as big-box stores, insurance companies and online retailers. These companies store sensitive information that's appealing to a hacker, such as credit and debit card numbers and social security numbers, so they are automatic targets for these cyberattacks.
Encryption changes information so that no one who shouldn't have access to certain files and folders can read the sensitive or proprietary information. Hard drive encryption software works by employing an algorithm – a cipher – to protect your files. Think of it as an automatic decoder ring: You can encrypt a message, send it to someone else, and give them the key to unlock the secret message. In this case, though, the key is a password that allows the recipient to enter the password and the file or folder to execute automatically, in some cases.
Most people don't need to encrypt their files and folders with disk encryption software, because generally your information stored on your computer should be safe behind a firewall and your operating system's encryption. However, there are some instances in which you would want to protect your files using a third-party system.
If you're a laptop user, you are more susceptible to having your data stolen if your laptop goes missing. Encryption of sensitive files such as tax documents, pay stubs and other financial information can help prevent identity theft. You should also consider Windows file encryption for other physical media, such as USB drives or hard drives – especially if they're being sent through the mail.
For example, if you send your tax forms to your financial adviser through email, you would want to encrypt those files so someone who could use your financial information for nefarious purposes doesn't intercept them. Additionally, if you store documents online, you may feel more secure encrypting these files. You can do this with PC data encryption software.
Plausible deniability encryption can help protect your privacy in another way by allowing you to send an encrypted file, but it offers no proof that the file is encrypted. This is only available in one piece of software we reviewed. In the case of Privacy Drive, your volumes do not have any signatures that prove they are encrypted.
A concern you may have with data encryption software is whether the one you choose has a back door, a loophole of sorts to circumvent encryption. None of the encryption programs we've reviewed have back doors, according to each company, so you can choose encryption software from our lineup with confidence.
Most of the folder encryption software available works with many different operating systems and versions. If you're a Windows user, you have likely upgraded to version 10, or at least 8, and most of the programs we feature in our lineup can work for you. If you're a Mac user, though, you should check out our list of the best Mac encryption software.
Cell phones are essentially small computers that are always with you – unless you lose yours, which can happen anywhere and at any time. If you do, your files, emails and more are at risk of falling into the wrong hands. That's where mobile encryption software comes into play, which can help you protect your files beyond a screen-lock password. If you need another layer of security beyond full disk encryption, take a look at our lineup of the best internet security suites, which can protect you from malware, phishing, spam and spyware.
Home users don't typically need heavy-duty security encryption, but businesses of all sizes do. You can find encryption and security software designed for servers, retail and other businesses that constantly transfer sensitive data. Popular encryption solutions for a network of computers or servers include Symantec Drive Encryption and SafeGuard Encryption by Sophos.
Experts in internet security and computer forensics tell us that the best way to ensure your files are protected is to make sure you use strong passwords that are at least 12 characters long and full of random letters, numbers and special characters. Anyone who's interested in getting their hands on your data is more likely to try to crack your password rather than an encryption, anyway. The best way to avoid a brute-force attack, which employs a program to cycle through random letters, numbers and symbols until the right password is finally discovered. It isn't a quick process, but any password can be cracked with enough time and power.
A typical desktop PC running a password-cracking program can easily guess the word "p4ssword" – according to the website How Secure Is My Password?, it would only take about 11 minutes. You can make it a bit more secure by adding capitalization – "p4ssworD" would take about 15 hours. Add a symbol and it takes even longer – "p4ssworD!" would take about 275 days. An even stronger password would be a sentence that's a combination of letters, numbers, symbols and capitalization. Something easy to remember but hard to guess, like "mYd0g!sMyp4ssw0rD?," would take a PC about 3 quintillion years to figure out. For more on how you can use software to protect your most sensitive information, read our articles on encryption software.
Encryption Software: What We Tested, What We Found
Most of the encryption software for Windows we tested lets you combine your encrypted files in one protected place, whether it's a locker, library or vault. The best encryption software gives you multiple ways to protect your files and information. Ideally, the file encryption software you choose should work quickly, be easy to use and keep your information safe.
We tested each of the encryption methods thoroughly using 63 files that totaled 128MB to determine which program was the best overall. Those that converted the files quickly received more credit in the final scores than others. And the programs that easily integrate into your operating system scored higher than those that require a longer process. Although encrypting such a small batch of files only took seconds in most cases, some programs took minutes to finish the job. When you're locking up only a few megabytes' worth of information, it's not a big deal, but if you're encrypting gigabytes of data, you could be looking at hours of waiting.
We also clocked the speed of decryption and found that most programs are able to give you access to your files fairly quickly. However, in the case of SensiGuard, we had to wait more than six minutes for both encryption and decryption.
It's important for an encryption program to be easy to use; otherwise, you may not use it at all. The programs we include in our lineup are overall simple and intuitive, particularly Folder Lock and Secure IT. They both guide you through processes step by step. Secure IT gives you access to encryption by integrating with the Windows operating system, so all you have to do is right-click on a file and choose to encrypt it in the menu.
In almost every test, we discovered that these file encryption programs compress files as they encrypt them. Although it's usually by a small amount – like from 128MB down to 124MB – it can make a difference when you're encrypting large data files. Those that compressed files the most received more credit in scoring.
Encryption software uses different types of ciphers to scramble your data, and each has its own benefits. Advanced Encryption Standard, or 256-bit key AES, is a form of the Rijndael cipher and is used by the U.S. government, including the National Security Agency, so it's considered one of the strongest encryption ciphers available. Blowfish and Twofish, the latter being a newer version of the former, are encryption algorithms that use block ciphers, which scramble blocks of text or several bits of information at once, rather than one bit at a time.
The main differences between these algorithms are performance and speed, and a regular user won't notice those differences. Although any of these ciphers could be broken given enough time and computing power, they are considered practically unbreakable. AES has long been recognized as the superior algorithm, so we gave more credit to the programs that employ AES.
Many data programs include an option to shred your files when you're ready to bury data. Deleting files doesn't actually get rid of them, but file shredders in encryption software can cover up your data, essentially. To "shred" files, a program overwrites the data with random bits of data. Data recovery is a lengthy process, so unless you're in the business of trade secrets or espionage, your hard drives are likely safe from data recovery.
Your files and information are only as safe and secure as your master password. If you use your last name or your childhood pet's name, you're inviting password crackers to have their way with your files. The longer and more random your password is, the harder it is to break. A password strength meter included in the software is helpful. Many programs require a master password to use the software, and then a separate password for each vault or collection of files. Password generators are also useful if you don't want to have to come up with strong passwords yourself.
We sent encrypted files via email and provided a password to the tester to unlock the files. The top-ranked software made this an easy process with self-extracting files, but some software, such as Secure IT, requires you to have the program installed on any computer where you intend to view the files.
Virtual keyboards allow you to "type" your password without using your actual keyboard. You use your mouse, which prevents potential keyloggers from recording your password as you type it. Your Windows operating system already includes a virtual keyboard, so you already have access to this security feature, but programs like Folder Lock and Advanced Encryption Package Pro make it easy to access. Stealth mode offers even more privacy – anyone else who logs on to your computer or hacks in won't even see that you used encryption software.
After encrypting files, some software allowed us to back up the protected data and connect to upload to a server, such as Google Drive or Dropbox, which is called redundant security. Folder Lock offers its own cloud for you to use, but it also requires a subscription, which is an added cost. In reality, you can upload any of your encrypted files to a cloud space and your files remain safe.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the software in our comparison on loan from the companies and through retail purchase. The companies had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
What Else Is Important in Choosing Encryption Software?
While security is the utmost factor in picking the right encryption software for you, it's obviously important that you choose a program that works for your system. Also, if you run into issues with your software, you might need to contact customer support or have access to online manuals and tutorials.
If you're running an older version of Windows, like Vista or XP, then you want to make sure the program still supports your operating system. On the flip side, you need to make sure you choose software that has changed with the times and supports the latest versions of Windows, like 7, 8 and 10.
Help & Support
All of the best file encryption software includes FAQs so you can search for an answer to your question before turning to customer support. Tutorials and user manuals are also helpful, so we gave higher scores to programs that offer these options. If and when you need to contact someone from the software manufacturer, you can do so via email or phone with nearly every one of the programs in our lineup.
Encryption Software: When Is a Free Program Enough?
Many free programs for file encryption exist, and they might be strong enough for your needs. We tested VeraCrypt and the Windows built-in encryption solution BitLocker. These are barebones programs that allow you to protect your files, and that's it. You won't find a file shredder, a password generator or a password strength meter. Also, these encryption solutions, while viable, are less intuitive than their paid counterparts. The paid versions walk you through every step and give you access to easy-to-read help files and tutorials.
So, if you're comfortable with certificates and keys to encrypt files, BitLocker may work well for you. VeraCrypt's system uses volumes and allows you to create a hidden, encrypted volume within another encrypted volume, which makes plausible deniability possible.
Our Verdicts and Recommendations
The top-rated file encryption program, Folder Lock, was far and away the easiest to use and fastest at encrypting files in our tests. You have more flexibility with this software than with other programs too, thanks to the many added features, like the file shredder and virtual keyboard. Not only can you encrypt files and upload them to a cloud service, like Dropbox or Google Drive, you have the option of using Folder Lock's own cloud service; however, you have to subscribe to the service, which is an added cost.
Secure IT proved to be a top contender in file encryption too. Although it isn't nearly as fast at encryption as some other top-rated software, it was the easiest encryption program we used. An installation wizard makes setup simple, and you get tips to help you learn the program in small bites each time you start up the program. Secure IT also compresses files better than many of its competitors, so you can save space when you lock your files away.
Kruptos 2 Pro kicks you off with a help guide immediately after installation, so you can quickly learn how to use it. As you encrypt your files, the original documents are converted to encrypted files, rather than copied, so you don't have to worry about originals remaining unprotected.
We also noted how convenient Advanced Encryption Package Pro made the encryption process: You can right-click on files and choose to encrypt without having to open the program, thanks to the software integrating into your operating system. It is a subscription, though, so you have to renew your license each year for this software.
SafeHouse Personal Edition makes encrypting files a breeze – you just drag and drop your files into a volume where they are instantly encrypted. It works like a hard drive, but virtually. You have to remember to close the volume, though, because otherwise your files remain open and vulnerable to anyone who uses your computer.
The right encryption software for you depends on what you need. Though there are factors that make some stronger than others, each of the nine programs we've reviewed can fit a range of needs – from light protection to ironclad security.