A guide to hiding your data

We live in a world where data rules. Sharing your files, from docs to pictures to videos, is as easy as breathing. But we've all got some stuff that we'd like to keep to ourselves. It could be data files that are so important to your company that your job hangs in the balance. Maybe you have secret plans drawn up on your home PC, and you don't want busybody siblings, parents, spouses, or your offspring peaking at them.

Occasionally, we all need to make sure that some of our important files aren't open to all.

The typical method for file protection is encryption – the process of turning your information into unreadable junk that can't be opened without a password. However, encrypting a file is like sticking a red flag in the data that says, "Look at me! I'm ever so important and clandestine! Please, obsess over cracking my cipher! Decrypt me and you'll know all my secrets."

Thankfully, there is a better way – one that can work hand in hand with encryption. Camouflaging your data – and where you store it – can go a long way to providing you with peace of mind. Plus, you'll never stir up those snoops in the first place.

The cloud option

When we talk about hiding files, we typically mean they're still stored on your computer hard drive but are invisible to digital peeping-toms. However, these days, a quick way to keep files handy but not readily visible is to store them in the cloud. In certain cases – such as if you share a computer with other family members or friends – this is an easy way to keep their prying eyes away. The files remain hidden (they aren't physically with you on the computer), but you can access them anytime and anywhere, from any computer.

The secret to keeping the data truly hidden is to erase your browser history after accessing the files, and sign out of your cloud storage account(s) without saving the password(s). In theory, no one will ever know you have files online to access.

This isn't the same as synchronising data with the cloud and other computers, as you would with Dropbox, SugarSync or the like. Those services don't hide your files; in fact, arguably they put them in more locations for people to find. To help hide them, you could cheat a little by deactivating syncing to your computer for a limited period – say, when you're traveling – and then turn it back on to get your files back on the drive later. But that defeats the purpose of ongoing sync. (Some of the tips below can help obscure files even when synced, however).

If you’re looking for good cloud storage lockers to use in this case, try Google Drive or SkyDrive – major players that provide plenty of storage capacity for free. A final point to bear in mind is that cloud storage has its own security issues – if the provider is hacked, for example, then your files could be compromised. For this reason, it’s probably best to avoid hiding very sensitive material (say financial details) in some basic cloud storage locker.

Basic file concealment

If you don't trust the cloud, that only leaves your hard drive for fast access to files. So how do you keep those important files incognito? There is a very basic way to hide something, even right on your Windows desktop: Make it invisible.

Here's how to activate a folder cloaking device in Windows XP/Vista/7/8:

Step 1: Folders typically need a name, even if it's super-short. You can get rid of the name though. Rename a folder on your desktop by highlighting it and hitting F2, then type 0160 with the number pad (not the numbers above the letter keys) while you hold down the Alt key. The numbers will NOT appear to change. Press Enter. The name of the folder will be blank.

Note: You can only do this to one folder on the desktop at a time, as Windows sees no name as the name, and the OS won't let you duplicate folder names.

Step 2: The name is gone but the folder icon is still there. Right click on it and select Properties. Go to the Customise tab and click Change Icon. Windows will give you a choice of icons to change it to; three of those choices are blanks (in the middle of the bank of icons). Click on a blank one and then click OK.

Your folder is now invisible on the desktop, but you can click on it, because you know that it’s there.

You can then combine these steps with some basic encryption. For example, use software like WinZip, WinRAR, or 7-zip to create a file archive that is encrypted with a password of your creation. That way, if someone does find the folder you've concealed – they could conceivably accidentally click on the area of the desktop where your folder is cloaked – that person still won't be able to get to it. You can also change the file extension, from say ZIP to JPG, to obscure the fact that it's an archive.

Caveats: If you do this to a folder inside another folder and view the contents in list or details mode, the invisible folder will show up at the top. The name is blank, but the space will be obvious. Also, on the desktop, if someone clicks and drags with a cursor to highlight multiple icons, the invisible one can be highlighted and thus be seen – like throwing paint on the Invisible Man. So this method is free but far from foolproof.

Hide the whole drive

Making a folder invisible is one thing, but what if you've got a hard drive filled with secrets? Well, it is actually possible to hide a drive away, and there are various pieces of software which can do so. For example, SafeHouse Explorer can be used to create private storage volumes of up to 2TB in size, and can protect files on external hard drives and USB sticks, providing strong encryption into the bargain. It’s compatible with Windows XP, Vista, 7 and Windows 8, and it’s free as well (though there are paid versions which add further features and increase the strength of the encryption).

Sharing what you hide

Wikipedia calls steganography the "art and science of writing hidden messages in such a way that no one, apart from the sender and intended recipient, suspects the existence of the message." For our purposes, it is a way of hiding data – for example, embedding a Word document inside a JPG image – so that you can send it to people, and if intercepted, no one would suspect that the carrier file contains obscured data. It's easy to crack if not encrypted, but the file could be just as secure by not calling attention to its self.

Luckily, there are some software tools that can help you utilise steganography with your data. Hide in Picture and QuickStego are two examples of applications which let you embed data in an image file (the receiver will need the same software to decode it). Hide in Pictures goes an extra step, letting you embed entire files. There are other apps that will hide data inside MP3 files and in text, HTML, and PDF files. StegoStick is a freebie that promises it can do almost all of the above, hiding files within files and password protecting the carrier file.

If you want to avoid software altogether, there's at least one web service you can use. Ostensibly, Mozaiq is for building photo mosaics. That said, you can go to moaziq.com/encrypt, place a message into a password protected image, and then have the carrier file's receiver get the message by visiting moaziq.com/decrypt.

Note: If you or anyone else adjusts the file other than renaming it – for example, resizing, cropping, or editing a JPG image containing hidden data – your covert efforts are likely toast.