What is it: an easy-to-use data encryption utility.
Applications: keeping files and emails confidential.
If your data is in any way confidential, security is an issue you cannot ignore. If you send emails over the Internet, anyone with a little technical knowledge can read your messages as they pass from server to server. Users who keep important data on the hard disk of their notebook PCs run the risk of their files falling into the wrong hands if the machine is stolen.
One of the best safeguards against these hazards is encryption. Until recently, most encryption programs were expensive, cumbersome, and, in a few cases, not that secure. But a new breed of product is being launched which makes strong encryption available to non-technical users at an affordable price.
One of these products is PC Crypto, from anti-virus vendor McAfee. It works through a simple point-and-click interface that allows you to encrypt up to 1,000 files in one step. You just point to the files you want to encrypt, specify the output destination and enter your password.
By default, the encrypted files are in 7-bit Ascii format, which means they can be attached to email messages without additional encoding. As a further convenience, multiple files can be encrypted in a single ?archive?. They can be compressed before they are encrypted.
If you send these 7-bit files to someone else, that person will need a copy of PC Crypto to decrypt them. If this is not practical, you can create self-extracting files which, when executed, decrypt themselves.
These are ordinary EXE files which can be run from DOS or Windows. Because they are binary, they must be encoded before they are attached to mail messages (most mail readers can do this automatically). The recipient obviously needs to know the password to execute the files.
How secure is PC Crypto? In its US version, the program offers two encryption methods: 40-bit PC1 and 160-bit Blowfish. The former is based on an algorithm developed by Ron Rivest, who was one of the originators of the respected RSA encryption standard. The Blowfish algorithm was invented by cryptology expert Bruce Schneier.
The more bits there are in an encryption algorithm, the stronger the encryption. The Blowfish algorithm is an order of magnitude more secure than PC1, and to all practical purposes is immune to brute-force attack. However, it takes longer to encrypt and decode, although the difference is not really significant on a fast PC.
Unfortunately, because of US export restrictions, only PC1 is available in copies of PC Crypto on sale in the UK. However, PC1 is more than adequate for most commercial applications. In theory, it is vulnerable to brute-force attack, but would require so much time and computing power that it would be almost impossible.
To help manage the encrypted data, PC Crypto maintains an optional log file. This contains a record of every encryption session, including the time and date, the names of the original and encrypted files, and an optional comment.
When not being viewed, the log file is itself encrypted, which is just as well, as it also contains a clear copy of the passwords. Where PC Crypto is used extensively, the log file should be extremely useful in keeping track of files and passwords. The program also offers a ?wipe? feature which removes all traces of a file from your hard disk.
Contact: McAfee on 01344 304730 or
www.mcafee.com for a free 30-day evaluation copy
Verdict: PC Crypto is a strong encryption with an easy-to-use interface. It?s a pity that the ultra-secure 160-bit algorithm is not available in the UK, but the alternative 40-bit method should be adequate for most cases.
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