How to use encryption to safeguard data on your Windows 10 laptop

Many laptops are stolen every year, but encryption can help prevent thieves from accessing the private data on your Windows laptop.

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Laptops are tempting targets for thieves.

Some estimates claim that as many as one in ten laptops will be stolen. This isn't altogether surprising. After all, laptops are portable, easy to conceal, and can be quite valuable.

They also often contain sensitive information.

Encryption provides an additional level of protection to help safeguard your private data, so that even if your laptop is stolen the thief will not have easy access to information that could make the theft of your laptop much, much worse than simply lost hardware. 

(We will mainly look at Windows 10 laptops here, but Apple also offers encryption options for its customers. Mac users with OS X Lion or later on their laptops can use FireVault 2. Log into your account on your Mac, then go to Apple Menu>System Prefernce>Security & Privacy. Click on the FireVault tab, then the lock icon on the bottom left of the dialog box and follow the instructions. Note that you do need admin privileges to set up FireVault.)

The first thing you should do is ask yourself whether or not you need to the added security of encryption. If you don't keep sensitive files on your laptop and religiously use two-factor authentication to guard against unauthorized access to your accounts, it might be overkill.

Also, keep in mind that encryption is not completely without risk. It doesn't happen too often, but things can go awry and you could potentially face a loss of data.

Note: You should make sure that you backup your machine before you start encryption. This is an important step and while it is obviously possible to encrypt your laptop without a backup, it is a choice that tempts fate. Windows 10 has a feature called the System Image Backup utility that makes the process pretty simple, so there is really no excuse not to.  

The second decision that you need to make is how you will encrypt your laptop. Microsoft has helped with this decision. BitLocker is only offered with Windows 10 Pro and Windows 10 Enterprise editions. If you have Windows 10 Home and want to encrypt your machine, you will either need to upgrade to Pro to use BitLocker or use a third-party encryption tool. If you want to be frugal and save the money required for a Windows upgrade, there are a number of free third-party choices. 

If you do have a seat on the Windows 10 Pro or Enterprise train and want to use BitLocker, Windows will pretty much walk you through the process. You do need to be signed into Windows with an admin account to start the process. Then Windows Central has one of the best step-by-step guides on how to use BitLocker drive encryption on Windows 10 if you are looking for a thorough tutorial.  

If you are stuck with Windows 10 Home, VeraCrypt is a decent alternative to BitLocker. It can be downloaded for free, and is open source disc encryption software based on the now-defunct TrueCrypt. It's not overly complicated, but there is an expectation that users should be competent Windows users. As with any encryption tool, you should create a backup as a first step.    

Whether or not you decide to encrypt your laptop, it is great that the option is there. It wasn't that long ago that encryption was beyond the reach of the average consumer, but now powerful tools to help prevent data loss are available at little or no cost for everyone to use. 

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