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Encryption: A Critical Layer of Protection
It’s easy to see the benefits of using encryption to protect sensitive work-related email, confidential electronic files or other business communications.
Actually using it is a different story.
Although we know better, many of us can’t be bothered, or don’t think anything bad will happen or aren’t exactly sure how to use it, according to security experts.
As a result, technology companies are taking it upon themselves to build encryption into the devices we use to communicate and connect with the Internet, including laptops, cell phones and wireless networks. Thanks to these developments, you don’t have to do much out of the ordinary to make encryption part of your online life.
There’s good reason for both employees and their bosses to embrace the protection provided by encryption, which uses complex mathematical algorithms to scramble digital information that can be unlocked using a special software “key” or certificate. According to a recent survey of 893 U.S. information technology employees, 39 percent had misplaced a company cell phone, laptop or USB memory stick containing confidential information sometime in the recent past. Lost or stolen laptops and other portable devices are the leading cause of leaks of confidential company information, according to The Ponemon Institute, a Detroit, Michigan, privacy and security think tank, which conducted the survey.
Here’s a look at the latest developments:
Computers and PDAs
To prevent data leaks, laptop makers such as Toshiba and HP recently have rolled out machines with stepped up security features, including encryption. Toshiba’s newest Portege R500-S5007V laptop, for example, comes with advanced encryption, as well as multiple passwords and a fingerprint reader and retails for $2,999 HP’s new Compaq “s” series business notebook computers have hard-drive encryption that makes sensitive information unreadable if a notebook is lost or stolen, according to the company. The machines will be out in July with prices starting at $799.
Elsewhere, Microsoft includes encryption in the Enterprise and Ultimate versions of its Windows Vista operating system. Both include Microsoft’s BitLocker hard-drive encryption protection, which prevents someone from hacking into a machine’s operating system software or files stored on the hard drive. Likewise, Apple’s Mac OS X operating system software has FileVault, which encrypts an entire user directory and all the files in it.
If your computer doesn’t come already encrypted, you can choose from a wealth of add-on software. Programs include PGP or TrueCrypt, which creates a virtual, encrypted hard drive on a laptop or desktop computer that’s invisible without the right password to unlock it.
With more of us using cell phones for email, texting and accessing the Internet, one cutting-edge company is adding encryption to protect that data. Nokia, the Finnish cell-phone manufacturer, recently introduced two models for business customers that include encryption, along with other high-end features. The Blackberry-like E71 smart phone and E66 slider-type cell phone have encryption that covers the device memory and memory card. According to industry analysts, encryption will protect the phones without hampering performance, and the built-in chip can be used to store certificates and keys a user would need to send encrypted email. The phones cost approximately $538 and are expected to be available in the United States soon.
On the Internet, SSL encryption has long been standard issue for securing Web sites where you share personal or financial information. Now some sites are upgrading to a stronger type of encryption called Extended Version SSL, which requires certification requests to go through a more rigorous identity check and authentication process before being approved. As of April, approximately 4,000 Web sites were using EV SSL, according to Tim Callan, vice president of SSL product marketing at Verisign, an Internet security company and one of more than two dozen Web browser and technology companies that developed the protocol.
For now, EV SSL only works with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Web browser. However, upcoming releases of Firefox and Opera Web browsers are expected to work with it, according to industry reports. Be aware that Apple isn’t part of the consortium, and EV SSL doesn’t work with its Safari browser.
Whether you’re simply using your home computer for entertainment or running a home-based business, it’s likely you’re using a wireless network to go online. “There’s been a lot more interest in wireless security, and one aspect of it is wireless encryption,” says Nick Proferes, a policy fellow with the Washington D.C.-based Internet Education Foundation, a non-profit Internet education group.
Newer model wireless routers and other Wi-Fi network equipment have built-in encryption that allows only authorized users onto the network, so for example, your neighbors can’t surreptitiously log onto the Net using your wireless network. It also scrambles information as it is broadcast to and from the Internet, Proferes says.
All Web-based email offers some type of encryption, although the levels vary. Popular services such as Google’s Gmail encrypt users’ password information when they’re logging on but don’t automatically encrypt email messages. Hushmail offers a completely encrypted Web-based email service for free or an upgraded service for $35 or more a year that also stores messages on encrypted file servers. “There is no such thing as an unhackable system,” says Brian Smith, chief technology officer at the Canadian company. “But because we keep (data) encrypted on our servers, it is orders of magnitude more difficult” to crack.
Want to learn more about encryption? The Internet Education Foundation runs a Web site called GetNetWise with several video tutorials on safe-computing practices, including segments on using SSL and making Wi-Fi connections more secure.
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