Information Center

File Encryption 101: Safeguarding Your Sensitive Data

When it comes to cyber security, you can’t prevent your system from being attacked. But you can ensure your system is robust enough to thwart such threats if and as they come.

While most organizations understand this, they often look at it holistically. They focus on entire systems and hard drives. Although this is a great step, consider security at a much smaller scale to better protect your organization.

This is where encrypting files comes into play. It helps you focus on the security of sensitive data on individual files. So, even if a hacker breaches a database, they’ll need to breach individual files to access your data.

Encrypting files is smart considering the devastating impact of data breaches ranging from financial loss, lawsuits, and reputation damage.

Understanding File Encryption

File encryption is a security method that converts your files into ciphertext or unreadable data. By using this method, you may be sure that even if unauthorized people access your files, they won't be able to understand the contents without the decryption key.

In essence, encrypting files provides a strong layer of security to safeguard important information from prying eyes.

How Does File Encryption Work?

File encryption relies on complex mathematical algorithms and cryptographic keys. When you encrypt a file, the encryption method uses a mathematical formula to convert the plaintext (your original file) into ciphertext.

The encryption key, which is a special combination of letters or bits, is a vital component. The secret code allows authorized personnel or file recipients to unlock the encrypted data. In other words, keeping the secrecy and integrity of your files while enabling regulated access depends on the encryption key.

Key Concepts: Encryption Algorithms, Keys, and Ciphers

Before going deep into file encryption, it’s important to understand some of the core concepts:

  • Encryption algorithms: The mathematical processes employed to change plaintext into ciphertext and vice versa are known as encryption algorithms. Encryption algorithms determine the robustness and security of the encryption process. Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA), and Blowfish are good examples of encryption algorithms.
  • Encryption keys: Encryption keys are special codes that control how data is encrypted and decrypted. There are two main categories:
    • Asymmetric encryption uses two keys, a public key for encryption and a private key for decryption.
    • Symmetric encryption uses a single key for both encryption and decryption.
  • Ciphers: These are the encryption and decryption algorithms and techniques. They determine how to convert plaintext into ciphertext and vice versa. Block ciphers, stream ciphers, and hybrid ciphers are common cipher types. 

Encryption Approaches

As you start your file encrypting journey, you first need to identify the appropriate encryption technique. You can choose from several options:

  • File-level encryption: This type of protection allows you to granularly protect individual files by encrypting them. This technique is excellent when you have specific files that need an extra degree of security or contain very sensitive information. Encrypting individual files gives you more control over access and assures that even if one file is hacked, the others will still be safe.
  • Folder-level encryption: Encrypting whole folders and all the data included within them is a more comprehensive approach. This solution might be helpful to safeguard a group of related files simultaneously. Encrypting folders simplifies the encryption procedure since you can protect several files simultaneously while retaining their structure and order.
  • Whole-disk encryption: Encrypting the whole storage device, such as a hard drive or SSD, automatically encrypts all data and files on the drive, offering thorough security. For portable devices like laptops, whole-disk encryption is very useful since it protects all the data kept there, even if the device is lost or stolen.

Common Methods of File Encryption

Each encryption technique comes with a unique set of features and benefits. Therefore, it’s important to choose one that best suits your company. These techniques include:

Symmetric Encryption

One of the most popular encryption methods, symmetric encryption uses the same key for encrypting and decrypting files. While using a single key to encrypt and decrypt files may seem outdated, it’s very effective if used well. 

With symmetric encryption, the key is shared between the sender and the intended recipient and is kept secret. When a file is encrypted, the encryption key converts the plaintext into ciphertext. The recipient uses the same key to reverse the procedure to decrypt the file and recover the original plaintext.

  • Benefits and challenges: Symmetric encryption has several benefits, including high-speed performance, since the algorithms are often quicker than those used for asymmetric encryption. Its computational effectiveness makes it appropriate for encrypting huge volumes of data. However, it does have drawbacks. One of which is key management: The secrecy of the encryption key must be maintained because the same key is used for both encryption and decryption, making securely communicating the key with the receiver essential.
  • Examples: AES is a very efficient and safe encryption technique that is now the default option for many applications. Triple Data Encryption Standard (3DES) and Blowfish are other widely used symmetric techniques.

Asymmetric Encryption

An alternative to symmetric encryption for encrypting files is asymmetric encryption, commonly referred to as public-key encryption. Asymmetric encryption uses two distinct but mathematically connected keys. While the private key is kept secret, and only the owner knows it, the public key is distributed. A sender uses the recipient's public key to convert plaintext into ciphertext while encrypting a file. The receiver then decrypts the ciphertext with their private key to get access to the original plaintext.

  • Benefits and challenges: Asymmetric has multiple benefits, especially regarding key management. There is no requirement for a secure key exchange between sender and recipient because the public key is publicly distributed. Digital signatures are another feature that makes it possible to confirm the legitimacy and integrity of information. However, asymmetric encryption is frequently slower and more computationally demanding compared to symmetric encryption. As a result, it is commonly employed for key exchange or encrypting smaller quantities of data.
  • Examples: RSA is one well-known asymmetric encryption method frequently used for secure communication and digital signatures. Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) and Diffie-Hellman are other asymmetric encryption methods.

Hybrid Encryption

Hybrid encryption is the ideal solution for businesses that want to enjoy the benefits of both symmetric and asymmetric. A distinct symmetric key is first created for each file or session in the procedure. The file is subsequently encrypted using the symmetric key, which offers quick and effective encryption. The recipient's public key from asymmetric encryption is used to encrypt the data instead of the symmetric key itself. Then the encrypted file is transmitted together with the encrypted symmetric key. With the symmetric key, the recipient can decrypt the file if they have the appropriate private key.

  • Benefits: Hybrid combines the best features of both symmetric and asymmetric encryption. You can quickly and effectively encrypt large data sets using symmetric encryption, while asymmetric encryption protects the confidentiality of the symmetric key and offers a safe key exchange. By utilizing hybrid encryption, you may get the advantages of both strategies while overcoming the drawbacks and difficulties of each separately.
  • Examples: The Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol, used to secure internet communication, is one well-known hybrid encryption technique. TLS combines asymmetric encryption (like RSA) for safe key exchange with symmetric encryption (like AES) for encrypting the data payload. Another method is the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption standard for secure email transmission, which mixes symmetric and asymmetric encryption.

File Encryption vs. Full Disk Encryption

Depending on your needs, full-disk encryption may suit you better than file encryption. It’s important to understand how they differ and what to expect from each.

File Encryption

Encrypting individual files or folders offers a fine-grained level of protection. You have the freedom to choose specific files or folders to encrypt. Selective encryption is possible with this technique, giving you greater control over who may access which data. This approach has the following benefits:

  • Selective protection: Selective protection lets you concentrate encryption efforts on the most important data by letting you pick which files to encrypt.
  • Flexibility: Encrypting individual files makes sharing non-sensitive files simple while preserving sensitive data's privacy.
  • Efficiency: File encryption encrypts only the chosen files and not the entire drive.

Encrypting files is subject to the following issues, however:

  • Management complexity: It may require additional administrative work to manage encryption keys and access to certain files.
  • Potential for oversight: When files are encrypted separately, there is a higher chance that certain files may be unintentionally left vulnerable.

Full Disk Encryption

Full disk encryption provides complete safety for all data saved on the device by automatically encrypting every file on the drive. By using this technique, the encrypted data is kept secure even if the device is lost or stolen. Benefits of full disk encryption include:

  • Comprehensive protection: Encrypting the entire drive offers a greater degree of protection, guaranteeing that all files and data are protected.
  • Simplicity: Once enabled, all files are immediately encrypted without the need for human file selection.

Full disk encryption does have challenges, however:

  • Performance impact: Full disk encryption might negatively affect system performance because it constantly encrypts and decrypts data.
  • Limited flexibility: Since all files are encrypted with full disk encryption, it may constrain sharing options for non-sensitive data on the drive.

Implementing File Encryption

Now that you know the various encryption method, it’s now time to understand how to encrypt files. Here are some key steps:

1. Choose the Right Encryption Software

It's crucial to pick the appropriate encryption software to suit your demands. When choosing encryption software, take the following elements into account:

  • Security: Ensure the encryption software employs powerful encryption algorithms like AES or RSA to secure your files.
  • Usability: To simplify procedures, look for software with an intuitive user interface and controls.
  • Compatibility: Check the program's compatibility with your operating system and the file formats you often use.
  • Additional features: Consider other functions the encryption program may provide, such as file shredding, password management, or cloud storage service integration.

2. Generate Strong Encryption Keys

A major component of encrypting files is the use of encryption keys. For maximum security, create robust encryption keys that adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Key length: Use encryption keys with the proper length. Longer keys offer stronger security. A key length of 128 bits or more is advised for symmetric encryption. Key lengths of 2048 bits or greater are often recommended for asymmetric encryption.
  • Randomness: To avoid predictability, ensure that a reliable random number generator creates encryption keys.
  • Key management: Implement safe key-management procedures, such as securely backing up your encryption keys. Consider a key-management system or secure key vault for centralized and secure key storage.

3. Embrace Best Practices

Adopt best practices to get the best results from your encryption efforts. These include:

  • Train employees: Conduct training sessions and awareness campaigns to inform staff members of the value of encrypting files and the correct handling of encryption software.
  • Use strong passwords and implement multifactor authentication (MFA): Set strong passwords or passphrases for encryption keys and encryption software, including upper- and lowercase letters, digits, and special characters. Avoid terms or phrases that are often used as passwords. Turn on MFA whenever possible to offer additional protection. This may entail requesting another form of identification with the encryption key or password, such as a fingerprint, smart card, or biometric authentication.
  • Update software frequently: To take advantage of security upgrades and bug fixes, keep your encryption software up to speed with the most recent patches.
  • Securely transmit encrypted files: To prevent unwanted access while the files are in transit, employ secure communication channels like encrypted email or secure file transfer protocol (SFTP).
  • Audit frequently: Reviewing and auditing your file encryption procedures often allows you to identify potential flaws or vulnerabilities. Doing this ensures that your encryption system is still efficient and adheres to industry standards.
  • Maintain up-to-date backups: Regularly back up your encrypted files and check their integrity. Make sure you have a safe backup of your data in case of an error with the hardware, data loss, or other unforeseen circumstances.


Veritas Technologies has a solid reputation and a wealth of expertise in the data security and information management industries. We offer solutions that adhere to the highest security requirements because of our decades of experience in the field.

We are aware of how critical industry-specific rules and compliance standards are, and our solutions are made to assist organizations in satisfying compliance standards like including GDPR, HIPAA, and PCI DSS.

Veritas customers include 95% of the Fortune 100, and NetBackup™ is the #1 choice for enterprises looking to protect large amounts of data.

Learn how Veritas keeps your data fully protected across virtual, physical, cloud and legacy workloads with Data Protection Services for Enterprise Businesses.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

File encryption is essential because it adds an extra layer of protection to safeguard critical data from hacking or unauthorized access. It ensures that even if data is stolen, no one else can access it without the encryption key, protecting customer and partner confidence and ensuring confidentiality.

Encrypt any files that contain private or sensitive information. This can include documents containing financial information, customer information, intellectual property, employee information, and any other files that, if viewed by unauthorized people, can hurt your organization or violate privacy laws.

Yes, it is possible to exchange encrypted data with others. The recipients must have the required encryption software and the matching decryption key to access the encrypted data. To protect the shared files' privacy, ensure you securely distribute the decryption key only to authorized parties.

Since encrypted files cannot be viewed without the encryption key, losing it might cause irreversible data loss. Strong key management procedures, such as backing up and securely storing encryption keys, must be used. Consider putting a key recovery system or other access mechanisms in place to lessen the chance of losing access to encrypted information.

File encryption may slightly impact system performance, particularly during the encryption and decryption operations. However, due to improvements in technology and current encryption techniques, the impact of performance is often negligible and shouldn't substantially influence daily operations.

There may be legal or regulatory restrictions that may require you to encrypt files to secure sensitive information, depending on your company and the sort of data you manage. Such regulations include GDPR, HIPAA, or PCI DSS.

No, password protection and file encryption are two distinct ideas. File encryption involves converting files into unintelligible ciphertext using encryption algorithms and keys. Instead of necessarily encrypting a file or document's contents, password protection often refers to establishing a password or passphrase to limit access. Encrypting files gives you a higher degree of security since it makes the data itself unintelligible without the proper decryption key.