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Four methods of protecting your valuable personal data

A modern PC leads a kind of dual life. On the one hand, it serves as an entertainment centre, offering access to games, online videos, and the entire Internet. On the other hand, it acts as a tool for collecting, creating, and storing important information of all kinds.

If your computer is lost, busted, or stolen, switching to a new one has little effect on the entertainment side – but unless you've properly protected the personal data on that system, a theft or loss could become a data disaster. How can you head off such a calamity? Here are four ideas to help protect your valuable data.

Hide your valuables

If a burglar breaks into your house, will he or she find your valuables lying around in plain sight? Or have you hidden them away safely? Even if you don't really anticipate burglary, hiding your treasures makes sense. By the same token, even though your security suite or antivirus really should fend off data-stealing Trojans, protecting your personal data on the chance one might get through is just common sense. Having your data locked down will also help if that burglar makes off with your laptop.

You already have the resources to lock down many of your documents. If you store financial information in Excel spreadsheets, use Excel's built-in ability to password-protect those documents. Do the same for any sensitive Word documents, PDFs, or any other document with encryption capability.

To make sure you secure everything, enlist the help of Identity Finder. This clever tool scans your system for user-specified personal data and also for data its algorithmic analysis suggests might be sensitive such as credit card details. It then offers many options to secure the discovered data traces including secure deletion, encryption, and in some cases redaction of sensitive data only.

Skip the Recycle Bin

When you need to dispose of papers that contain private information, you don't toss them in the recycling bin with the newspapers. Rather, you put them through the shredder. When deleting sensitive files, you should likewise avoid the Windows Recycle Bin.

Deleting a file in Windows actually just moves it to the Recycle Bin. If you hold Shift while deleting the file, Windows skips the Recycle Bin. Even so, the file's data remains on disk until overwritten. A persistent data thief could use forensic utilities to potentially recover that information.

Many security suites include a virtual shredder that securely deletes sensitive files. This type of utility overwrites the file's data anywhere from one time to over thirty times before deletion. Three overwrites is probably plenty; forensic recovery experts at DriveSavers confirm that overwriting data even once makes recovery nearly impossible.

All the major security suites generally offer a built-in shredder these days, including the likes of Bitdefender, Kaspersky, McAfee, and so forth.

Encrypt it!

A data-stealing Trojan will grab what it can get easily. Unless you're the target of a personally directed hack attack, even simple encryption will defeat the Trojan. Got a sensitive file you need to keep rather than shred? At the very least, copy it into an encrypted ZIP file and then shred the original.

Some security suites include an option to create a "vault" for storing files. The encrypted storage vault looks and acts like an ordinary folder when you've opened it using the password, but when it's locked the files within are completely inaccessible.

Keeping that encrypted data in external storage is even safer than encrypting it in place. There are many encrypting USB storage solutions with varying capabilities from the likes of IronKey and Kingston.

Keep it offsite

PCs break down, laptops get stolen, files get lost. A backup copy is the ultimate security for your data, but if you keep the backup with the computer a single disaster (like a fire) can take out both at once. A hosted online backup service encrypts your data and keeps it in a safe location far, far away.

At the very least, protect your most important files using the free small-capacity subscription that many of these services offer (such as MozyHome and SugarSync).

Unless your PC functions as nothing but an entertainment centre, its loss or theft will have an impact far beyond the cost of a replacement. By taking steps to protect the important data on the PC you can keep that impact to a minimum. Hide personal data, securely delete outdated sensitive files, and encrypt sensitive files that you're still using. That will prevent a thief from stealing both your PC and your identity. Maintaining an offsite backup copy will ensure you don't lose access to the data files you really need to keep in case of a major disaster. Just remember that a little effort now can save a huge headache later.

While you're here, you might also want to check out our article from last month on the best security products of 2013.