File encryption software ideal for laptops

In this edition of Strom's Security Tool Shed, David Strom analyzes PGPdisk, a file encryption tool.

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Category: Disk encryption software
Name of tool: PGPdisk
Company name: PGP
Price: Free for older versions
URL: www.pgpi.com
Platforms supported: Windows (all versions since 95, for the most part), Macintosh, variety of Unix

Strom-meter:
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool.

File encryption software, especially for laptop users

Key features:
Pros
Easy to set up and use
Free and solid encryption of your files

Cons
Conflicts with Norton Systemworks' Imaging utility
Some versions don't work with Win ME

Description:
A common fear for traveling laptop users is that someone somewhere will steal their laptop and their associated files. I once knew several computer executives who wouldn't leave their laptops out of their sight, and would take them everywhere -- and I mean everywhere -- they went. That can be cumbersome, to say the least.

But if you tire of this extreme physical security, a better bet is to encrypt your files so that only you can read them. One of the easiest tools available for this purpose is PGPdisk.

PGP, for Pretty Good Privacy, has been known for its e-mail encryption, and indeed, it is a fine e-mail encryption product. But a less-well known part of the PGP empire is PGPdisk.

Basically, once you install the software, you can set up as many protected disk partitions as you have room for on your hard disk. You can specify the size in MB that you want each partition to occupy and the drive letter that will be assigned to this partition. In this way, it works just like the native Windows file system. The only difference is that the partition is completely encrypted. If you don't remember your password to decrypt it, you are sunk: There isn't any way to get this data back.

Each partition shows up as a big single file under Windows Explorer: You can copy these files and distribute them to your co-workers via e-mail or however you please. This presents another side benefit for distributed workers, who need to share a collection of files but don't want to go through all the trouble of installing secure e-mail. You could post the PGPdisk partition on a Web server, then circulate the password via a telephone call, and you'd have the ultimate in security.

You can size the partitions anyway you like: I like to keep them under 100M bytes so they can fit on a ZIP drive for the ultimate in portability. If you run out of room on one partition, just create another and copy the files between them. Really, in the time it takes to explain all of this, you can already be using the software. Once you unmount the partition, it remains encrypted until the next time you need access to the files. So your files can live on your laptop safely, even if the machine is filched.

Getting the software is probably the hardest thing about it. You can go to www.pgpi.com and download a free version of PGP (Version 6.0.2) that also contains a fully functional version of PGPdisk. You can download more recent 6.5 or 7.0.3 versions, but you'll eventually have to pay for a commercial license, or compile it yourself from the source code. Both Windows and Mac versions are available, and the Windows version that I tested worked for the most part on various flavors of the operating system, with a couple of notable exceptions below. If you care about absolute security, the latest bug fixes and such, then you should be running the commercial 7.0.3 version.

First, PGPdisk Version 6.0.2 works on Windows ME but the remainder of the PGP package does not. If you want ME support for everything, you'll need the more recent version. Second, PGPdisk doesn't like Norton's Systemworks, or should that be vice-versa? Norton tries to backup the encrypted partition when they are mounted, thinking that you have inserted another disk.

But these are minor quibbles. If you need absolute file security, try PGPdisk.

Strom-meter key:
**** = Very cool, very useful
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool
** = A tad shaky to install and use but has some value.
* = Don't waste your time. Minimal real value.

About the author
David Strom is president of his own consulting firm in Port Washington, NY. He has tested hundreds of computer products over the past two decades working as a computer journalist, consultant and corporate IT manager. Since 1995 he has written a weekly series of essays on Web technologies and marketing called Web Informant. You can send him e-mail at david@strom.com.


This was first published in December 2001

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