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How private are your private files

We all have digital information we wish to keep private, from a word document filled with improvisational notes about surprise party to work files and folders that contain commercially sensitive facts and figures, but knowing how to keep such data secure and away from nosy-parkers is not always obvious. For starter, there are many different ways to make files and folders private, and some options available in Windows XP are not offer in Vista and vice versa, finding the right stating point can be tricky.

Where to start
Begin by deciding what it is your want to achieve, for some the privacy problem will relate to using a work computer to store private files, perhaps to work on updating a CV during your lunch break, things you rather your boss didn’t see, I’m not going to delve deeply into this area because ensuring privacy on a PC you don’t own is fraught with difficulty, besides it may go against your employer’s usage policies, my advice is not to keep personal or private files on a work PC Desktop.

Securing file on a home PC shared by or accessible to, other members of the household an obvious way to keep other from accessing private files and folders stored on a shared PC is to create separate user accounts for each person who has access to the compute, get it wrong, though and any sense of security you attach to his method will be false. The key is understand the different type of user account, both Windows XP and Vista offer two types of user account, computer administrator and standard user, standard user (called limited users in Windows XP) can change their own login passwords and personal icons, make use of applications installed for all users and create and save new documents, but that is about all, because a standard or limited account has its own password, which can be change by the account owner, it is easy for the account owner to believe their files and folders are safely protected behind this password, but that is not the case.

Set up an administrator account
The reason is that every Windows PC must have at least administrator account, a user logged in with an administrator account has the ability to gain access to all areas of the PC, put another way, administrators do not need individual account password to see what files and folders have been create by standard or limited users, owner of standard or limited accounts can prevent other standard or limited accounts from viewing their personal files, but that’s all, to do this in Windows XP, right click the folder in question (My Documents, perhaps), select properties from the pop-up menu, chose the sharing tab and then click to place a tick in the “Make this folder private” check-box, Vista users need not worry about this, as folders stored in standard user accounts are private by default, but can still be accessed by administrator.

Administrator pitfalls
If the shared PC has more the one administrator account, then all privacy bets are off, any folders marks as private an additional step in XP, but automatic in Vista will indeed be inaccessible to standard or limited account owners but because administrator account will be able to rifle through other user folders whenever he wants. Both Windows xp and Vista prevent even an administrator from directly accessing another administrator’s private files and folders, however because an administrator has the power to manage any user account, all they need do is apply a new password the account in question and they can log in. So where a PC is shared by several people, do not consider user accounts a safe way of keeping files and folders private, unless the PC has just one administrator account and it is under your control, for a quick guide to creating and managing user accounts.

Simple security
So far have concentrated on the privacy features attached to windows user accounts, you may by now realize that, unless you are so sole administrator, they are not to be relied upon, so what can the average user of a shared PC do to ensure their private files stay private, in the first instance it is worth exploring the options available in the software you are using, with Microsoft office, for example, it is possible to add passwords to individual word documents or excel spreadsheets, power point presentations and so on, it is very simple to do and means that event standard or limited account owners can build some degree of privacy around their personal files.

To password protect a word 2003 document, for instance, click the file menu and chose save as now click tools and from the drop-down menu pick security option, here it is possible to set password both for opening the document, most secure or modifying a document which does not stop anyone from opening the document but will prevent change being made, also if you are really concerned about privacy, click the advanced button here and choose a strong encryption type, word 2007 users should click the Microsoft office button, choose the prepare and the click encrypt document.

This method can be applied in much the same way across all the Microsoft office application; however it is worth bearing in mind that this protects only a document’s contents from being viewed, a computer administrator could still view the file name, so if you are craftily updating a CV on a work PC, remember that saving the document as files names ‘bob’s updated cv.doc’ might just give the game away to anyone who comes looking.

Getting zippy
If a favored application does not offer a password protection features or similar privacy options there are still way to put particular files and folders behind password, interestingly, this is an area where windows xp is actually more capable than vista, both xp and vista allow users to compress selected files and folders, turning them into a files and folders, turning them into files with a .zip file extension, this feature is best used to save space, by archiving old files and folder s into a compressed file so that they occupy less room on the hard disk, but zip file can also be password protected, the trouble is that, for reasons best known to itself, Microsoft remove the ability for users to password protect zip files in vista, so vista users can create compressed zip files but they are unable to add a password without additional software, xp users on other hand, can do just that, though it is a bit complicated, first right-click on the file or folder to be compressed, from the pop-up menu that appears, point to send to then click compressed folder, windows xp will turn the selected items into a file with a .zip extension, right-click this newly created .zip file and choose explore from the pop-up menu, this will open the zip file so its contents can be viewed in the windows explorer, now click the file menu and choose add a password, type in and confirm the password and click OK, remember that the zip’s file name will remain visible, so avoid giveaway labels.

Vista users cannot add passwords to zip files, but fortunately, there is plenty of software to help out, one the most popular zip utilities is WinZip, if you don’t want to pay and we can’t blame you, then a good free alternative is Zipgenius, you will not be able to install additional software if using a standard or limited user account, that is reserved for administrators.

Extra Security
Windows user it is foolish to assume that user account password provides any serious level of privacy owner of windows administrator accounts can have some confidence that their files and folder are safe standard or limited account holders, but add a second administrator account and privacy is lost, standard or limited account owners have next to no privacy, unless they make it for themselves, as a standard or limited account user it will not be possible to install software but as we have seen there are still ways to ensure a certain level of privacy, make use of application level security features where they exist such as password protection Microsoft office documents or use xp’s compression ability to put sensitive files and folders behind a password.

Remember that a computer display can itself be a security risk in shared environments; leave a sensitive document displayed on screen and anyone could read it while you are away, so close private documents before leaving your desk, and have windows task for log in password when exiting a screen-saver, right click on the desktop, select properties, click the screen saver tab and click the box labeled “on resume, password protected’, this is not a terribly secure method in itself but a blanked out screen can deter opportunist snoopers.

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