Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024


Key Takeaways

  • VeraCrypt is a free and open-source tool that enables full-disk encryption on Windows PCs, providing protection for sensitive data against theft or unauthorized access.
  • Setting up VeraCrypt is easy, and guides users through the encryption process and recommends secure password practices. VeraCrypt handles the encryption in the background, allowing normal use of the computer.
  • VeraCrypt offers the option to create hidden operating systems for added security, providing plausible deniability.


Some Windows 10 devices ship with “Device Encryption”, but other PCs require you to pay another $99 to get BitLocker on Windows Pro for full-disk encryption. If you’d rather not, you can use the free and open-source VeraCrypt software to get full-disk encryption on any version of Windows.

This Cybersecurity Awareness Week article is brought to you in association with Incogni.


What is VeraCrypt?

VeraCrypt is a free and open-source tool you can use to enable full-disk encryption on any Windows PC. It works on both Windows 10 and Windows 11, but it’ll work on earlier versions of Windows too.

It isn’t complicated to use, either: After setting it up, you just have to enter your encryption password each time you boot your PC. You use your computer normally after it boots. VeraCrypt handles the encryption in the background, and everything else happens transparently. It can also create encrypted file containers, which is super handy, but we’re focusing on encrypting your system drive here.

VeraCrypt is a project based on the source code of the old TrueCrypt software, which was discontinued. VeraCrypt has a variety of bug fixes and supports modern PCs with EFI system partitions, a configuration most Windows 10 PCs and all Windows 11 PCs use.

What is Full-Disk Encryption?

Encryption scrambles files into random-looking gibberish using special kinds of mathematical algorithms, ensuring that no one can read them without a special key or password.

Full-disk encryption does this to your your entire drive. That means that even if someone gains access to your physical hard drive, they’ll need your password (or key file) to actually see what you have on the drive. Of course, this doesn’t protect you against malware that attacks your PC while it’s running — just against someone stealing your PC or its hard drive and trying to view your files.

Given how much sensitive data we store on our PCs, it makes sense to protect it, just like you might a social security number.

Why Use VeraCrypt to Encrypt Your Drive?

The primary advantage of VeraCrypt is that you can use it on almost any computer and it is completely free. Windows has BitLocker (which is not typically free), macOS has its own built-in drive encryption, and Linux has a variety of options available. VeraCrypt can run on any of them. You can even use it on devices with ARM-based processors, like a Raspberri Pi.

VeraCrypt also does a good job of guiding you through the process and take the appropriate precautions.

How to Install VeraCrypt and Encrypt your System Drive

Download VeraCrypt to get started. Run the installer and select the “Install” option. You can keep all the default settings in the installer — just click through it until VeraCrypt is installed on your computer.

The VeraCrypt installer's first page.

Once VeraCrypt is installed, open your Start menu and launch the “VeraCrypt” shortcut.

Click System > Encrypt System Partition/Drive in the VeraCrypt window to get started.

Open the

You’ll be asked whether you want to use “Normal” or “Hidden” system encryption.

The Normal option encrypts the system partition or drive normally. When you boot your computer, you’ll have to provide your encryption password to access it. No one will be able to access your files without your password.

The Hidden option creates an operating system in a hidden VeraCrypt volume. You’ll have both a “real” operating system, which is hidden, and a “decoy” operating system. When you boot your PC, you can enter the real password to boot your hidden operating system or the password to the decoy operating system to boot the decoy operating system. If someone is forcing you to provide access to your encrypted drive — due to extortion, for example — you can provide them with the password to the decoy operating system and they shouldn’t be able to tell there’s a hidden operating system at all.

In terms of encryption, using “Normal” encryption keeps your files just as secure. A “Hidden” volume only helps if you’re forced to disclose your password to someone and want to maintain plausible deniability about the existence of any other files.

If you’re not sure which you want, select “Normal” and continue. We’ll be going through the process of creating a normal encrypted system partition here, as that’s what most people will want. Consult VeraCrypt’s documentation for more information about hidden operating systems.

Select

You can choose to either “Encrypt the Windows system partition” or “Encrypt the whole drive”. It’s up to you which option you prefer.

If the Windows system partition is the only partition on the drive, the options will be basically the same. If you just want to encrypt your Windows system partition and leave the rest of the drive alone, choose “Encrypt the Windows system partition”.

If you have multiple partitions with sensitive data — for example, a system partition at C: and a files partition at D: — select “Encrypt the whole drive” to ensure all your Windows partitions are encrypted.

Encrypt just the Windows partition unless you know you need something else.

VeraCrypt will ask how many operating systems you have on your PC. Most people only have a single operating system installed and should choose “Single-boot”. If you have more than one operating system installed and you choose between them when you boot your computer, select “Multi-boot”.

Select

You’ll then be asked to choose which type of encryption you want to use. While there are multiple options available, we recommend sticking with the default settings. “AES” encryption and the “SHA-256” hash algorithm are good choices. They’re all solid encryption schemes.

You can even select multiple encryption types simultaneously, but that is likely overkill.

You’ll then be asked to enter a password. As VeraCrypt’s wizard notes, it’s very important to choose a good password. Choosing an obvious or simple password will make your encryption vulnerable to brute-force attacks.

The wizard recommends choosing a password of 20 more more characters. You can enter a password of up to 64 characters. An ideal password is a random combination of different types of characters, including upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols. You’ll lose access to your files if you ever lose the password, so make sure you remember it.

There are a few more options here, but they’re not necessary. You can leave these options alone unless you want to use them:

  • Use keyfiles: You can choose to enable “Use keyfiles” and provide some files that must be present — for example, on a USB drive — when unlocking your drive. If you ever lose the files, you’ll lose access to your drive.
  • Display password: This option just unhides the password in the password fields in this window, allowing you to confirm that what you’ve typed is correct.
  • Use PIM: VeraCrypt allows you to set a “Personal Iterations Multiplier” by enabling the “Use PIM” checkbox. A higher value can help prevent against brute force attacks. You’ll also need to remember whatever number you enter and enter it alongside your password, giving you something else to remember in addition to your password.

Select any of these options if you want them and click Next.

Our password is only 4 characters for this example. Don't do that.

VeraCrypt will ask you to move your mouse randomly around inside the window. It uses these random mouse movements to increase the strength of your encryption keys. When you’ve filled up the meter, click “Next”.

Move the mouse around on the VeraCrypt Creation Wizard. There is a bar at the bottom of the screen that will turn green when it is complete, and then

The wizard will inform you it’s generated the encryption keys and other data it needs. Click “Next” to continue.

The keys to encrypt your drive have been created successfully.

The VeraCrypt wizard will force you to create a VeraCrypt Rescue Disk image before continuing.

If your bootloader or other data ever gets damaged, you must boot from the rescue disk if you want to decrypt and access your files. The disk will also contain a backup image of the contents of the beginning of the drive, which will allow you to restore it if necessary.

Select where you want to save the rescue ZIP file to.

Note that you’ll still need to provide your password when using the rescue disk, so it isn’t a golden key that allows access to all your files. VeraCrypt will simply create a rescue disk ZIP at “C:\Users\NAME\Documents\VeraCrypt Rescue Disk.zip” by default. You’ll need to extract the EFI folder from the ZIP to a flash drive or burn it to a disk. VeraCrypt will confirm that you’ve done this correctly when you click “Next” a few times.

Be sure to burn a copy of the rescue disk so you can access your files if there’s ever a problem. You can’t just reuse the same VeraCrypt rescue disk on multiple computers. You need a unique rescue disk for each PC! Consult VeraCrypt’s documentation for more information about VeraCrypt rescue disks.

A VeraCrypt rescue flash drive.

Next, you’ll be asked for the “wipe mode” you want to use.

If you have sensitive data on your drive and you’re concerned someone might attempt to examine your drive and recover the data, you should select at least “1-pass (random data)” to overwrite your unencrypted data with random data, making it difficult to impossible to recover.

If you’re not concerned about this, select “None (fastest)”. It’s faster not to wipe the drive. The larger the number of passes, the longer the encryption process will take.

This setting only applies to the initial setup process. After your drive is encrypted, VeraCrypt won’t need to overwrite any encrypted data to protect against data recovery.

Pick your wipe mode. The default,

VeraCrypt will now verify everything is working correctly before it encrypts your drive. Click “Test” and VeraCrypt will install the VeraCrypt bootloader on your PC and restart. You’ll have to enter your encryption password when it boots.

Run the encryption pre-test to ensure you don't accidentally, irrevocably lose access to your files.

VeraCrypt will provide information about what to do if Windows doesn’t start. If Windows doesn’t start properly, you should restart your PC and press the “Esc” key on your keyboard at the VeraCrypt bootloader screen. Windows should start and ask if you want to uninstall the VeraCrypt bootloader.

If that doesn’t work, you should insert the VeraCrypt rescue disk into your PC and boot from it. Select Repair Options > Restore Original System Loader in the rescue disk interface. Restart your PC afterwards.

Click “OK” and then click “Yes” to restart your PC.

You’ll have to enter your VeraCrypt encryption password when your PC boots. If you didn’t enter a custom PIM number, just press “Enter” at the PIM prompt to accept the default.

Sign into your PC when the normal welcome screen appears.You should see a “Pretest Completed” window.

VeraCrypt advises that you have backup copies of the files you’re encrypting. If the system loses power or crashes, some of your files will be irreversibly corrupted. It’s always important to have backup copies of your important files, especially when encrypting your system drive. If you need to back up your files, click the “Defer” button and back up the files. You can then relaunch VeraCrypt later and click System > Resume Interrupted Process to resume the encryption process.

Click the “Encrypt” button to actually encrypt your PC’s system drive.

VeraCrypt will provide information about when you should use the rescue disk. After it does, it will begin the process of encrypting your hard drive.

When the process is complete, your drive will be encrypted and you’ll have to enter your password each time you boot your PC.

If you decide you want to remove the system encryption in the future, launch the VeraCrypt interface and click System > Permanently Decrypt System Partition/Drive.



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By John P.

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