lock on doorYour personal data, files, and pictures are easy game for thieves and customs agents if you don’t encrypt them on your laptop or USB drives. The free program TrueCrypt is an essential software tool for digital nomads and an effective way to keep your data safe from the TSA (and others).

This tutorial is a bit on the technical side but in a few quick steps you can create a secret hidden folder on any laptop or USB thumb drive so customs agents or thieves won’t be the wiser.

These steps are specific to Windows machines but the process is very similar on a Mac. This entire process should take about 5 minutes.

Step 1: Download and Install TrueCrypt

Download the latest Windows, Mac, (or Linux) version and follow the default installation steps (basically click ‘Next’ until you’re through). You’ll be asked to reboot once you’re done. Go ahead and reboot your computer.

truecrypt installation screenshot

Step 2: Run TrueCrypt

There should be a TrueCrypt icon on your desktop or Start Menu folder after you reboot your system. Find the TrueCrypt icon and double-click it to launch the program.

truecrypt default

Step 3: Create A Hidden Folder

Click ‘Volumes‘ and select ‘Create New Volume‘.

truecrypt create new volume screenshot

Then select Hidden TrueCrypt volume like the screenshot below shows.

hidden truecrypt volume

Make sure to select Normal mode and click next. Here’s the part where you actually create the hidden folder, which isn’t really hidden. Make up any name for the folder and store it on your laptop (or USB drive).

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truecrypt save file as

Now you’re almost done. Use the default encryption options (shown below) in TrueCrypt in the next window and click Next.

default truecrypt encryption

Step 4: The Outer Volume

Select a size for your folder then create a password – this password will be the one that opens the folder but doesn’t show your important files. This is useful for when you might have to open a folder to show a customs agent. You can enter the password and the folder will open but it won’t show your really sensitive documents.

truecrypt outer volume password

Click Next then Format.

truecrypt format

Step 5: The Hidden Volume

Once the formatting is complete, you’ll go through the same process, only this time for your hidden folder. Pick a different password than the one you used for your outer volume. This password for your hidden folder is the one you’ll use to access your secret files. The outer volume password is a cover and opens the same folder but without the contents.

truecrypt hidden volume password

Then click Next and Format (you know the drill). Now you are done. Test out your hidden folder and load it up with your important documents. Some good ones as Dan suggested are scans of your passport, credit cards, and anything else you wouldn’t want to lose.

To open the hidden folder open TrueCrypt, click ‘Select File’ and navigate to your hidden TrueCrypt folder.

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Step 6: Open Your Hidden Folder

truecrypt select file screenshot

Once you’ve selected the file click Mount.

truecrypt mount screenshot

Now, here’s the important part. You’ll be prompted for a password to open the file. Use the ‘Hidden Volume’ password you created to open the folder and get to your sensitive files and pictures. If you want to fool someone (whether it be border authorities or anyone else) and make it seem like you’ve opened the file enter your ‘Outer Volume’ password.

truecrypt enter password screenshot

You’re Done

The neat thing about TrueCrypt is that you can run it directly from a USB drive and access your files from Internet cafes for example. You can also store different files in both the outer and hidden volumes which are both encrypted. Loading TrueCrypt and using it to create a hidden folder on your laptop and USB drive is important for travelers especially since 12,000 laptops are lost in US airports each week alone. (I’m sure the number is higher for USB drives.)

Keep all of your important documents encrypted on your laptop and USB drive which will protect you from opportunistic thieves who won’t be stopped by a Windows password and using hidden folders gives you the option of hiding your data even if customs agents force you to give up your password.

[photo by: CarbonNYC]