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How to protect computer data

Your entire life is likely to be on your laptop: financial records, future plans, your entire photo and video library, your company’s sales reports, and so on and so forth. What you do not want is someone else gaining unauthorized access to it, or more importantly, all of this data.

The good news is that both Windows and macOS make it easy to lock your laptop and stop unwelcome visitors from accessing your files. The following steps are not difficult and you should make sure that you set aside time for them.

Hold yourself accountable

Make sure you have set up your own user account on your laptop, even if you are the only one using it – not only will this prevent your kids from messing with your browser bookmarks when they want to play games, it will also prevent others in accessing it. Even if your laptop is stolen, if there is a password protected user account on it, there is not much a thief can do beyond resetting it and wiping the data.

Microsoft and Apple know it’s important, so you’ll find it difficult to set up a new laptop without a user account, but avoid sharing accounts with other people or leaving them unprotected. You can manage user accounts from Contours in Settings in Windows (via the gear icon on the Start menu), or from Users and groups in System selection (under apple menu) on macOS.

Know the options for logging on to your laptop and use them wisely.

© Screenshot: Microsoft via David Nield

The usual rules about passwords and PINs apply here: Make sure you use a password or a code that no one else will be able to guess (but that you will never forget), and avoid using passwords that you already have spend on your other digital accounts. You should also ask your laptop to return to the lock screen after a short period of inactivity. To turn this on, go to Contours and Login options in Windows settings, and Security and privacy and General in macOS System Preferences.

Both Windows and macOS now support biometric authentication for user accounts on laptops – fingerprints and face recognition – so use these features where available. They are not an excuse to forget your master account password, as you still need it in certain situations (for example, when you restart your computer, or when you need to make significant changes to your system).

Use system-wide encryption

Encryption is (usually) now enabled by default on both Windows and macOS laptops, although it may not be in place on older computers. This makes the data on your hard drive look like you are not logging in to the laptop normally – this means that it is much more difficult for someone to pull the disk drive out of the computer and access the files stored on it. .

If your Windows laptop is relatively new, encryption should already be turned on. You can check by clicking the gear icon on the Start menu to get to Settings, and then clicking Update and security and Device encryption—If the encryption option is available but is not turned on, you can do so from here (follow the instructions to complete the process).

MacBooks will usually use encryption when configuring them for the first time, unless you specifically opt out. To ensure that encryption is in place, open it apple menu, then select System selection, Security and privacy, and FileVault—If FileVault is not enabled on your laptop, for whatever reason, you can turn it on here. Follow the instructions to protect your data using the password associated with your Apple ID.

For an additional level of protection for certain files and folders, you can also install a third-party encryption tool. This is useful for locking down data stored on external hard drives, for example, or synchronized over various cloud storage services. VeraCrypt is one of the best options for Windows and macOS, and it is open source and free to use.

Use specific app protections (if available)

Do not neglect the various protections available for specific apps either – if someone else guesses your password, accesses your computer after you have passed away, or borrows your computer with your permission, this extra security measure will be all that stands between them and your data.

Different programs have different options: We can not cover them all here, but just be aware of what is available. For example, in current Microsoft Office apps, you can add password protection to documents, spreadsheets, and presentations by selecting File, Info, Protect the document and Encrypt with password (Windows) or Review, Protect and Protect the document (Mac os).

There is a similar option available if you use the Pages, Numbers and Keynote applications that come as part of macOS – you just have to select File and Create a password to add protection. As an added bonus, you also encrypt the file by putting a password in place in some of these programs so that no one will be able to access the data inside without the password.

The Apple Notes application that comes as part of macOS is another tool that has a password protection feature. Select to lock a note File and Lock note, then enter a password you want – just make sure it’s something you remember, because you will not be able to get back in the note without it.

Enable Find My Computer

Should the worst happen and your laptop falls into the wrong hands, both Windows and macOS come with tools that allow you to locate your computer on a map and lock it remotely. We would not recommend tracking down the person who has it without the help of the authorities, but locking the laptop or emptying it of sensitive information (which is available on macOS) is definitely a good idea.

On Windows, go to Update and security in Settings, then select Find my device and make sure the feature is enabled. To separate you and your laptop, sign in to your Microsoft account online and click Devices then Find my device. You cannot remotely wipe the device for Windows, but you can at least lock it so that it is not accessible without a password.

On macOS, the function is called “Find my”, but you must make sure that you have registered your Mac in the Find my service first – from System Preferences, select apple ID, then iCloud, and then click Options next to Find my Mac. As long as the Find My Mac entry in the list is checked, you can find your laptop.

You can find Find My as an app on your iPhone or iPad, if you have one, and you can also access it through iCloud online. You can lock a MacBook remotely, or delete everything on it completely, or mark it as lost (which displays a custom message on the screen if you want to try to get it back, as well as mute incoming alerts on your laptop).


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