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Encryption

John P. Reid | August 18th, 2013


A mobile file encryption app.

Computer Column #297

by John P. Reid, E-mail: jreid@dca.net

Most of us are careful to protect sensitive material on our desktop computers. A list of Internet passwords, business records, or banking information can be encrypted and password protected by most word processors including Microsoft Word and the free LibreOffice Writer. Methods vary, so check the help files on your word processor. Spreadsheets can often be password protected to secure accounting data.

Home and business computers can be protected with a log-on password, and they are physically protected, too. A thief has to break in and cart the machine away. Mobile devices are more vulnerable. Recent snatch-and-run thefts of iPhones, iPads, and iPods have given rise to the slang expression “Apple picking.” Android devices are targets, too. Phones can be protected with a log-on password, but this is a nuisance. Further, most mobile device users are in the habit of telling the device to remember Web site passwords since typing a password on a virtual keyboard is so difficult. An unprotected mobile device could allow a thief to clean out a bank account, charge credit cards, plan a robbery around the owner’s schedule, or steal an identity. Another level of protection is needed.

Keeping sensitive documents in cloud storage such as Google Drive, SkyDrive, Dropbox, or iCloud is some protection in that these services are password protected. In general, there is no way to further protect cloud documents. For example, a Microsoft Word document can be encrypted so a password is needed to decrypt it. But decryption does not work in cloud storage when a file is read on a mobile device. Microsoft Word decryption works only on a computer running real Microsoft Word software.

The solution is general-purpose encryption and decryption apps on the mobile device. Such apps are available for both Apple iOS and Android smartphones and tablets; however, none has a long history or a lot of user comments. The sensitive file can be downloaded to the mobile device, encrypted there, and stored on the device for decryption when needed. The encrypted file usually can be uploaded to the cloud and downloaded when needed.

Many encryption apps work on documents, photographs, video files, and sound files. Some encrypt and decrypt in place but also have a password list storage feature. Others also make the file’s existence invisible.

Android Encryption

There are many Android encryption apps worth looking at. We tested one popular app just as an example of the type. The S.S.E. app for Android by Paranoia Works gets mostly good user comments and has a variety of features. It is available free at Google Play and other Android app stores. The initials stand for Secret Space Encryptor. Help files are available from the main screen.

After the app is installed and started, four large icons appear. The first is for the password vault. After the user sets a strong password for the vault itself, a screen invites the user to identify functions such as Web sites that require a password. There is a place to enter the function’s or site’s password. There is another space for adding information including the answers to the site’s test questions such as “What is your mother’s maiden name?”

The second icon allows typing and encrypting notes after a password is set. The third allows encrypting and decrypting of existing files including plain text documents, word processing documents, spreadsheets, pictures, videos, music, and other files, or a whole folder. Read the help files on the designer’s Web site.

A file can be e-mailed from a desktop computer as a file attachment. After it is received by a mobile device, the attachment can be saved. For instance, a large password list can be transferred for encryption to a smartphone or tablet in this way. Just be sure the mobile device has a viewer for the file. If not, save a word processor file as “plain text” or “.txt” before the transfer. Save a spreadsheet as a “comma separated values” or “.csv” file, another form of plain text. All mobile devices can read plain text. S.S.E. comes in versions for Apple, Linux, and Windows desktop computers so files can be encrypted before download if preferred.

Be warned that when a file is encrypted, the original unencrypted file still exists. Be sure to erase the original file using the S.S.E “wipe” function (see the help file again) to totally destroy it. This should be done every time the file is decrypted for viewing.

The fourth icon displays a group of utilities that will not be useful to most users. It includes a summary of the encryption systems available. There is little to be gained by changing the default setting. All the encryption systems are the best available to the general public and would require a supercomputer to defeat. Law enforcement and national security agencies may have ways to defeat them, but the Fifth Amendment is some protection in the United States. Individuals may be required to supply decryption information in other countries including the United Kingdom and Canada.

File locations may get confusing when downloading and uploading files. My smartphone saves e-mail attachments to one folder, while my tablet saves them to another. Android devices seldom have the equivalent of the desktop computer’s Windows Explorer to browse for files and open them. A popular Android equivalent is the free ES File Explorer available from Android app stores.

iOS Encryption

We did not try iOS encryption apps, but they will have features similar to the Android example above. There are not a lot of multipurpose security apps in the iTunes App Store. A favorite is Keeper Password & Data Vault with free versions for iPhone and iPad. Some users upgraded from within the app to the $9.99 per year Backup Subscription. This keeps changes up to date in cloud storage and allows synchronization of password files between multiple iOS devices.

The Vault app and Private Pal app both offer secure storage of all file types. Neither has enough ratings and reviews yet for iTunes to display them. The Vault, a free app, offers a number of paid added features from within the app. Private Pal is $2.99. There are also iOS apps specifically for hiding photos.

Equivalents to the Macintosh desktop’s Finder for browsing and opening files include File Manager Pro, File Manager App, and File Browser; these range from $3.99 to $4.99 on the iTunes App Store.

Business Apps

Symantec (www.symantec.com), the Norton Internet protection company, has mobile encryption for paid business accounts. Most other virus protection software has similar paid business offerings.

Sophos (www.sophos.com) is a relatively new product that coordinates both iOS and Android mobile encryption with cloud services. The mobile apps are free, but cloud control software is required and will be quoted on request at the Sophos Web site. The number of supported cloud services is currently limited.

New encryption apps for iOS and Android are popping up all the time. Read the descriptions, ratings, and user comments. You may find one that fits your needs exactly.


Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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