How can I use encryption?

Updated:July 2016

How can I use encryption?

Recently, encryption has become a popular topic amongst freelancers. Here's why you should be using it, and some basic information about how it can make your digital activity more secure.

Encryption is a method of protecting information from being seen by those your didn't intend to see it. It works by using a mathematical formula to scramble data, which can only be unscrambled with a specific key and/or pass phrase.


  1. How can encryption help my work? 
  2. Encrypt your email
  3. Encrypt your instant messaging
  4. Encrypt your internet calls
  5. Encrypt your visits to websites
  6. Encrypt files stored on your computer
  7. Encrypt files stored on a cloud
  8. Encrypt your computer entirely
  9. Encrypt your mobile
  10. Adjust your attitude and actions accordingly
  11. Better habits

How can encryption help my work? 

Encryption is the best way to keep your digital content private, or only accessible to those you want to see it. It helps you make sure rough-drafts, source material and other information isn't compromised, and can help protect your communications with sources, colleagues and others. Properly used, it will keep your data confidential.

It’s not without its shortfalls. Software can often be buggy and look unfinished, and you’ve got to convince others to use it in order to communicate with them with it. You also need to realise that what's being protected. Encryption locks the content of your data, but not the meta data. It's about privacy, not anonymity.

But it's not that difficult to use with some practice. New software is also making it much easier on the end user. If your goal is to stop others from looking into the substance of your electronic files and online communications, then encryption is the answer. We’ve included here some methods that could be useful.

Encrypt your email

Use Gnu Privacy Guard to encrypt your email messages. For this to work, both you and your recipient need to have end-to-end encryption set up and have traded public encryption keys. One popular method is to use the Thunderbird email client with the Enigmail extension. Other methods include using GPGTools for Apple, or GPG4win in Windows or Linux. Use the Free Software Foundation's Email Self-Defense guide or this Tuts+ guide to get started quickly.


Encrypt your instant messaging

Having a secure, live chat with someone via your computer can be relatively easy. Pidgin is one option that’s quick to set up and use with others. Cryptocat works through your browser (or mobile) and is another fairly simple solution for one-on-one or group encrypted chats.

How can I use encryption?Encrypt your internet calls

Many freelancers continue to use Skype, but there are concerns with its encryption and how it handles contact and conversation data. 

There are a number of alternatives that can help keep your conversations private. 
Jitsi is a secure open source option for voice and video calls that can run through a program on your computer or in a web browser, it's as simple to use as Skype but with stronger encryption and privacy or anonymity options. Another method is Ostel which is can be used with different software on all major computer and smartphone systems.

Encrypt your visits to websites

When you’re visiting a webpage, use HTTPS instead of HTTP at the start of the site’s URL. This encrypts your sessions on that site and prevent prevents others from knowing specifically what you’re doing on the site even if they know you’re there. This makes the transactions between you and the website you’re using private. Add the HTTPS Everywhere browser extension to make sure you’re in a secure sessions on a site whenever possible. For many sites, this may not be an option as they haven't set it up.

Be careful what you transmit on these sites, as it can be easily readable by anyone monitoring your connection. Running your web browsing through Tor or some VPN services can also provide strong web traffic encryption. For more on this see our resources on how to avoid being monitored and how to access blocked content.

Encrypt files stored on your computer

If you want to your secure file and folders on a hard drive or external disc, there are various methods availableGNU Privacy Guard is one way of doing this. It's open source and works on Macs, Windows and Linux computers. There are various programmes that make it easier to use as well. All major computer operating systems have their own methods for encrypting files, so check out what may already be on your computer.

TrueCrypt or Veracrypt?

Use Veracrypt. There has been some controversy around using TrueCrypt, a strong, open source method to encrypt data which works across operating systems. Get the whole story here.

The short version is that development of TrueCrypt ended, but version 7.1a of the software is considered to be a secure option. TrueCrypt developers  discontinued the project after version 7.2. which does not include all the features of the previous version and will only decrypt files (as a way of telling people it's discontinued). An easy location to get the last full version (7.1a) of the software is here. The source code has been adopted as Veracrypt by different programmers and this continues in active development, and have added new security features that aim to make the encryption stronger.

NOTE: Whenever searching for strong encryption software, it's good to look for open source options that have been peer reviewed and are still in active development. Only download encryption software from their official sites. The developers should have used a signature file to sign the software, and you can check the key to make sure its authentic.

Encrypt files stored on a cloud

Storing files online has obvious advantages for sharing, backing up and creating deniability by removing them from your local hard drive. The downside is that you have less control over storage servers in the cloud. There are a number of services, some promising better security than others.

Look for a services with both strong encryption for when your information is being transferred to the cloud as well as when it is sitting there. Data should encrypt before it leaves your device, and only decrypt when it’s back on it again (this is ‘client-side encryption’). Services offering this include
SpiderOak or Tresorit. You may want to use your own encryption software before uploading it, which will then make it very difficult for someone to crack.

Encrypt your computer entirely

Most operating systems now offer the ability to encrypt your entire hard drive. On Windows, it’s Bitlocker. For Apple computers, it’s Filevault. Linux systems have various options, depending on which you’re using, as How-To Geek explains.

Encrypt your mobile

It’s a mixed bag for smartphones. Android mobiles and iPhones both offer disk encryption within their settings. Android has more options for strong encrypted communication that’s open source and verifiable. Some well-developed options are available through Guardian Project and Whisper Systems.  For more on mobile phones, see our resource.

Adjust your attitude and actions accordingly

You’ve set up all this marvelous technology and are ready to lock down your digital life and share only what you want to with who you want to. Great! None of it will work unless you think consciously about what you’re doing and adopt the kinds of behaviors that make this stuff do what it’s supposed to.

The internet is biased toward sharing, and you’re trying to limit how much you put out there. Always be thinking about who your maximum audience is for what you’re sharing, and how you’ll limit it to those people.


Better habits

  • Secure your private encryption keys offline. Don't leave copies on your desktop, for example.
  • Log out of your computer when you’re not using it.
  • Be careful what you click on or install on your computer. Ask yourself how you know that it's safe before doing it.
  • Use strong, memorable pass phrases.
  • Be consistent: If a communication starts encrypted, keep it encrypted. Don’t forward something your received encrypted to someone without encrypting it (or with the original sender’s permission).
  • Exchange GPG public keys personally as much as possible (to prove you’re you)

Find out more

Image credit at top: Code, by Anonymous Account, published under a Creative Commons license. 

Image credit at left: Screenshot from Ostel's website
Created: May 2014

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