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Disk encryption - definition, applications and significance

10 min read

The 21st century - a time of technological progress, innovation and revolutionary discoveries. Given the current dramatical evolutionary pace of the world, it is quite unsurprising that new inventions are being fabricated daily. Inventions that are mainly fueled by a unique and prevalent source - information. Information is key in our technological society - every company relies on it. On the other hand, every individual depends on it for knowledge enhancement and extraction to further develop their capabilities. Regardless of the situation, the subject or the purpose, there is nothing more significant than information. Due to the constant bombardment with data and the plethoric abundance of information, issues related to privacy and security are currently rising to prominence. 

Because of this, it is of the utmost importance and best interest for both technology users and companies to safely store personal data and customer information. Whether you are using a desktop computer, a laptop, tablet, a smartphone or any other device that has an integrated storage medium, it is important to understand the necessity to protect your private data whilst simultaneously keeping it secure. While we have delved into the field of server encryption in one of our previous lessons, today we are going to focus specifically on disk encryption. Encrypting your disk or any other storage medium for that matter, can help you protect yourself drastically  in terms of both security and privacy. Because of this, we sincerely hope that by the end of this article you will be fully acquainted with disk encryption in relation to its definition, utilization, application and importance.

What is encryption?

In order to understand the principles behind disk encryption, we need to firstly comprehend the idea of encryption in general. Data encryption can be defined as the process of taking data or a set of information and converting it into machine-generated, unreadable code rendered as a randomized sequence consisting of divergent predefined characters and symbols for the sole purpose of preventing unauthorized access to the initial data or information.

Photo by Towfiqu Barbhuiya on Unsplash.com 

During the encryption process, a special key is generated, referred to as the encryption key, which is used to decipher the encrypted information and convert it back into human-readable data. This process is referred to as symmetric encryption and it is widely used by softwares such as ProtonMail that use the same key to both encrypt and decrypt the data. In other cases, a separate unique decryption key is created, the function of which is to only decode the data rather than encrypting it. This process is known as asymmetric encryption as it uses two distinct keys. Under even more extreme circumstances a number of these encryption-decryption key pairs could be generated and utilized in order to ensure maximum security, as is the case with the relay nodes used by Tor.

What is disk encryption?

Disk encryption utilizes the aforementioned process in order to convert the data located on your device or any other storage medium to that unreadable code-like format. By using encryption software or even additional hardware, every bit of data stored on your disk will be converted in order to prevent unauthorized access. However, what you might not be aware of, is that there are two separate types of possible encryption for your disk.

Types of disk encryption

There are primarily two distinct types of encryption for the data located on your disk - full disk encryption and file-level encryption. With a file-level encryption you are only restricting access to a certain file, folder or directory on your device, most commonly with a password or a special key generator. This type of encryption is particularly useful if you need to keep your device constantly running even when you are not using it, but you do not want other people to intervene with your work or intrude your personal privacy. On the other hand, with a full disk encryption, you are protecting the entirety of storage at once, meaning that if someone were to steal your device or just your disk independently, they would struggle immensely while trying to decipher the information located on it. Therefore, we are mainly going to be focusing on full disk encryption and its benefits.

How can I encrypt my disk?

There are many divergent options that you can select from including ones that you can perform manually as well as those that can be done completely automatically. In terms of manual actions, you can try to implement a specific password to restrict access to your disk. Should you decide to utilize this option, remember that a random set of characters, numbers and symbols is the best choice that you can make in terms of structuring your password. Moreover, you can also encrypt your disk and store the generated encryption key on a physical storage medium like a USB drive, meaning that you would firstly be required to insert the USB into the device in order to unlock the storage disk.

Additionally, if you happen to be a VPSBG client, you can easily encrypt your server with us! All you need to do is to follow this tutorial!

Photo by Benjamin Lehman on Unsplash.com

In terms of automation software, two distinctive options are available to you. One the one hand, if you are using Windows, you can utilize the operating system’s free encryption software - BitLocker to encrypt your disk or if you are using a device with macOS, then you can make use of FileVault to achieve this result. One the other hand, there are also many other additional software applications that you can find on the Web, but most are only offered as a premium service, meaning that you will be required to purchase them. A good alternative is to generally utilize some open-source tools such as the strong and reliable VeraCrypt. Overall, we do recommend using primarily tools and applications that were designed either by Microsoft or by Apple in terms of their legitimacy, but if you choose to go for a third-party option, ensure that it is open-source in order to avoid potential backdoors and additional problems.

If you decide to take disk encryption to the next level in terms of security and privacy protection, you can invest in a Trusted Platform Module, referred to as a TPM. The TMP is a microchip that can be manually attached to your motherboard. Its main purpose is to generate specific encryption keys that will be stored on the microchip itself rather than the disk, making the process of deciphering the information on the drive exponentially difficult should your device be stolen or lost. Moreover, the TMP can also detect potential suspicious activities such as tampering and immediately proceed to locking itself completely while safely guarding the information on the disk. Furthermore, the microchip can also perceive certain malicious code that could have been either forcefully or unintentionally injected into the drive. In such a situation it would again completely lock itself, preventing the spread of that code and keeping your system secure.

Photo by Alexandre Debieve on Unsplash.com

Why is it important to encrypt your storage?

As mentioned previously, the most important reasons are to maintain privacy and security. As an individual, you should not allow anyone to go through your system including your temporary or cached files, as well as your traditionally stored information. Furthermore, in the case of large-scale companies and service providers, information encryption is extremely important and even obligatory. A perfect example of this are hospitals and any private practices that collect patient data. Securely storing people’s medical records and personal information is of the utmost importance with potential leaks and breaches even being criminally charged. Online stores and ecommerce giants are also required to safely store their customers’ data whilst simultaneously ensuring that it cannot be stolen, sold or leaked. Additionally, there are also codes of conduct and regulations such as the GDPR in Europe that further support this by legally demanding companies to securely store customer data as mentioned by the Guardian. Finally, the ability to encrypt the data located on a given disk can be extremely beneficial in the event of potential theft.

Overall, regardless of whether you are an individual or a company, it is really important to ensure that the disk hosting all of your information is securely encrypted in order to preserve your personal data. There are many options for you to choose from when encrypting your disk such as passwords, automated software and even additional hardware such as with the help of a TPM. Nevertheless, what truly matters is having an extra layer of security in order to protect both yourself and your personal or clients’ information.

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