Keeping up with cybersecurity is an essential best practice to ensure your business's viability. While modern operating systems generally come with their own hard-drive encryption technology built in, encrypting the data you transmit online can be a bit more difficult. Many entrepreneurs find themselves lacking the technical knowledge, time or money to implement truly effective solutions.
Luckily, there are a number of powerful encryption services available that can secure everything from files to phone calls. Here are a few of the best free encryption services that can help you easily secure your business operations and data. [See related story: Cybersecurity: A Small Business Guide]
Signal (mobile messenger)
Signal, an open-source private messenger app developed by Open Whisper Systems, allows Android and iPhone users to easily employ end-to-end encryption for free. There is also a Signal add-on for Google Chrome that syncs your secure communications from your mobile device onto your desktop. Signal supports both private messaging and calling with nothing more than an internet connection, meaning it can effectively replace your default communications apps. However, users on both ends need to be using Signal and be connected to the internet to take advantage of the app's client-side encryption: 256-bit AES encryption for the content of texts and 128-bit AES-CBC encryption for the content of calls. That means convincing friends and colleagues to install and run the free application as well.
A particularly appealing aspect of Signal is that it employs what is known as perfect forward secrecy, a system that generates fresh encryption keys during each individual session. This means Signal is insulated from attacks, compartmentalizing the content of your communications so that it's incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to intercept in its entirety. Signal also protects against man-in-the-middle attacks: Its SHA-256 hash authentication prevents a would-be thief from establishing a false, disguised server to intercept your communications.
ProtonMail is a highly secure, open-source email application designed by MIT and Harvard research students, led by CERN researcher Andy Yen. It features both desktop and mobile applications, and the free model supports 2048-bit and 4096-bit encryption. ProtonMail also supports self-destructing emails, which can help you even better cover your digital tracks. In addition, ProtonMail boasts the ability to send encrypted communications to non-ProtonMail users. While ProtonMail is free, it also offers a paid premium service that expands on the basic edition's features.
"Email that isn't protected is no more secure than a postcard going through the mail, accessible by anyone while in transit. This is something businesses need to take into account when evaluating their security needs," Dave Wagner, CEO of encryption service provider ZixCorp, told Business News Daily. "End-to-end encryption … protects email in transit but extends security behind the network, preventing any hackers from accessing email if they break through a company’s perimeter."
One major downside of ProtonMail is that there are limits to how much you can do with a free account. Free users only have access to a measly 500MB of storage and can only send up to 150 emails a day. However, if you save ProtonMail for your truly important messages and regularly clean up your inbox, this should be plenty suitable to secure your sensitive communications. Otherwise, upgrading to a premium account might be worth the modest cost of 5 euros per month (ProtonMail is based in Switzerland), or 30 euros per month for the Visionary package. You can also purchase specific add-ons to the free edition, such as additional storage space, for less than the cost of fully upgrading.
Hotspot Shield (VPN)
Hotspot Shield from AnchorFree is a virtual private network that is especially useful for employees who are traveling or likely to connect to public Wi-Fi. VPNs work by creating an encrypted "tunnel" between your computer and one of the servers managed by the company. Hotspot Shield covers your major bases with 256-bit AES encryption, securing your personal information on any Wi-Fi connection, changing your IP address to protect against potential snoopers and hackers, and offering an additional layer of malware protection. It also includes a feature that turns the VPN on automatically when you connect to an unsecured wireless network, protecting you while you're out and about.
"If you have people out of the office and logging in to (unsecured Wi-Fi), you probably want them using a VPN when connecting back so that traffic cannot be picked up," said Ermis Sfakiyanudis, co-founder and CEO of B2B technology company Trivalent.
In terms of ease of use, Hotspot Shield is relatively user-friendly, but the interface can take a little while to figure out. Hotspot Shield's major shortcoming is that you need a paid plan to take your pick of the 20 available countries. Otherwise, you'll have to accept being routed through the server of Hotspot Shield's choice. This might not be a big deal, as your activity is still secure, but it is a limitation that users of the free version should consider.
Sync (cloud storage)
Protecting your communications and web activity is great, but if you store your files in the cloud, they'll need to be secured as well. Sync works much like other cloud storage applications you might have used, but it secures your files with end-to-end encryption. Both Windows and Mac users can access Sync, and it is supported on both Apple and Android mobile devices. Best of all, Sync.com is free for up to 5GB of storage. While you might use up that space relatively quickly, a paid business package starts at $5 per user per month for 1TB of secure storage; it also allows for collaborative work with multiple user accounts, all easily managed from an administrative dashboard.
The downside to Sync is simply that it uses Type 1 encryption, which means the original documents will remain unencrypted on your device unless you take additional steps to secure them. If you don't anticipate an attack on your device or you've secured it, this really shouldn't be a major pitfall, but it is something to take note of.
Where do I start?
If you find yourself overwhelmed and unsure of which information you should be encrypting, Sfakiyanudis advised prioritizing your vulnerabilities and understanding how your enterprise actually works in terms of data handling.
"People look at cybersecurity and kind of try to boil the ocean. It's like dirty room syndrome, and they don't know which sock to pick up first in terms of securing," Sfakiyanudis said. "Start with protecting the information you generate that's sensitive, that you don't want out there in the general domain. Ask yourself, what are those things you want to keep confidential? (W)here is the data, how does it move, who touches it? Map that out and figure out the vulnerabilities, and address those issues first."
To learn more about computer encryption and how it works, check out this Business News Daily guide.