How to: Encrypt Data on an External Hard Drive

While not everybody needs to safeguard the documents they’re working on quite as well as I have to in my everyday CSI routine, everybody has personal information on their external hard drives/laptops/etc. that they don’t want preying eyes/thieves to be able to access.  The solution to this problem is encryption. 


There are many applications available for encryption.  Some work well, others not so much, some cost a lot of money and others are free.  One such encryption tool is TrueCrypt.  TrueCrypt is a software application used for on-the-fly encryption.  It can create a virtual encrypted disk within a file or encrypt a partition OR it can even encrypt the entire storage device.  The beauty of this specific little application is that it supports Windows, Mac OS X and even Linux.  It is also incredibly easy to use.

Step 1  – Getting the application

TrueCrypt can be downloaded here. It is super easy to install – just follow the instructions.

Step 2 – Getting started

Connect your external hard drive and launch the application.


Step 3 – Creating an encrypted volume

Click on the “create volume” button.  The application will now give you a choice to either create an encrypted file container or to create a volume within a partition.  The easiest option by far is the first one. Tick the box and click on next.  You will now be prompted to select a volume type.  If you’re anything like me or if you do top secret work you will automatically be drawn to the second option.  But unless your hard drive contains top-secret information that would destroy the world that we live in, you only really need to use the first option.  A normal encrypted volume.  Which is the one I’ll be explaining here.  Tick the box and click on next.

The application will now give you an option to decide what the file should be called and where you will be creating it.  Click on “Select file”.  Then simply give your encrypted file a name and choose where to save it.  In this case, the external hard drive.


In this case my external hard drive is labelled “untitled”.  Click on “save” and then “next”.

The application now tries to derail us poor little non-geeks with complicated questions around encryption options.  I won’t lie…these confused the hell out of me, and even after some detailed explanations from my epically geeky friends I still didn’t really get it.  All I know is that this determines how the application will encrypt your software.  So go ahead and take your pick.  Once you’ve decided which of the options you like click “next”.

pinkloclYou will now be given the opportunity to decide how big you want your encrypted file to be.  Just bear in mind that the bigger you decide to make your encrypted file, the longer it takes to access or exit the file, as the application has more data to encrypt/decrypt.  I generally make use of separate files no bigger than 20GB to ensure effective use of my time.

And then it’s password time.  Passwords are always tricky, as you have to pick something that you’ll easily remember but that someone else wouldn’t be able to figure out.  Avoid using birthdays and nicknames and opt for a combination of digits and characters in order to make it as complicated as possible while keeping it simple.  Once you’re happy with your password you can click on “next”. 

The application will now ask you if you’ll be storing files bigger than 4GB each.  The reason for this is that certain formats of encryption can’t be used if you’ll be encrypting large files.  Take your pick of the two and click “next”. 

You will now be prompted to select a file system.  TrueCrypt offers either FAT or Mac OS Extended.  If you choose to use FAT a Windows machine will also be able to access the hard drive and use it, however if you choose Mac OS Extended the hard drive will be limited to use on Macs only….so choose wisely.  The next step in setting up your volume is the fun part.  You get to move your mouse about randomly to create an encryption key.  The longer you move it, the stronger the encryption will be.  Once you’ve had enough simply click on “format”.  The application will now proceed to format that section of the hard drive. 


Once TrueCrypt is done creating your encrypted volume simply click “ok” and “exit”.

Step 4 – Using your encrypted volumes

Now that you’ve created an encrypted volume you need to use TrueCrypt in order to save information to it.  Click on “Select file” and simply find the file you created in Step 3.

Now you need to click on “mount” in the bottom left corner.  TrueCrypt will ask you for your password.


You will now see your file appear in slot 1 under volumes.  Literally what happens now is that your computer will see the file as a whole new hard drive.  In my case the “drive” will appear on my desktop much like any other external storage device I plug into my USB port.

From here you simply save whatever documents you want to this created drive.  Just ensure that you don’t attempt to use more space than you originally assigned to the encrypted file. 

Step 5 – Encrypting the file

When you are done using the file, you need to encrypt the data.  Simply call up the application from your dock and click on “dismount”.  Depending on the size of the volume the “dismounting” could take between 5 seconds and 5 hours.

As soon as the application is done dismounting your documents are safe and sound and encrypted.  Making them just that much more secure from preying eyes.

About the author  ⁄ Ruby Letters

Ruby Letters

Ruby is a small-town girl who traded the mountains and farms for the big city lights in an attempt to follow her dreams. By day (and mostly by night too) this workaholic catches bad guys as #CSIRuby. Her superpowers include Insomnia, OCD and juggling life with at least one foot firmly stuck in her mouth. Fiercely independent and strangely optimistic, Ruby loves shoes, wine, gadgets, traveling, knives, tractors, music, poetry, sushi and dancing. She guards her secrets carefully but, if you're lucky, she'll let you in on a few of them! She is, at the end of the day, just a geek in high heels.

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