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Step-By-Step Guide to Password Protect a File or Folder in Windows

Learn how easy it is to secure your files and folders with password protection and encryption.

In a perfect world, once you set up a Windows password, all is secure and safe, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. A Windows login password offers a very basic level of protection that mainly keeps your files safe from others who may share your computer.  But risks abound. Individuals with deeper knowledge into hacking a system can easily circumvent these simple security measures. Most versions of Windows don’t include a way to password protect files and folders, so they must be encrypted, or a third-party password protection program used to keep folders in Windows 7, 8 and 10 safe from cybercrime.  If your laptop is stolen, for example, the thief can boot up your computer from a removable device to access your files. Or, they can simply remove the hard disk, install it in another computer, and immediately gain access to all of your files and personal data.

In this article, we’ll show you how to defend your data against prying eyes by employing some relatively simple features built for the Windows platform, as well as some more advanced measures to ensure next-level protection.

Back to basics: Difference between password protection and encryption

Password protection is a lot like locking something in a safe — for instance, a highly sensitive document. To access that document, you must know the correct combination.

Knowledge is literally the key. This is why password protection is sometimes more formally referred to as a form of knowledge-based authentication. You need to know the password to enter. If you required a physical token like, say,  an actual key or a special USB drive to access our secret document, then this would be a form of possession-based authentication. If the token (or “key”) were a fingerprint or a face, you would be using inherence authentication, because the token is literally something that is inherent to you and you alone.

Encryption is sort of like taking our secret document and scrambling all the letters in that document so it is virtually unreadable by anyone not authorized to read it.

When a document is unencrypted, it’s stored in what we might call plain text. Anyone can read it. When it’s encrypted, it’s in cipher text. To see the document in its original form, the user must provide a key of sorts that unscrambled the message. In the case of file and folder encryption in Windows, the “key” is to be logged into the correct user account. Even on the same computer, the secret document may as well be gibberish to a different Windows user.

Password encryption is a third option that combines password protection and encryption. The primary benefit of using both is having two layers of security. Now our secret document is in a safe and it’s inscrutable.

If someone has the right password to unlock the file or folder, they still won’t be able to make sense of it if they’re not logged on as the authorized user.

Why password protect files?

If you share your computer with others, there is always a chance of human error — the accidental deletion of an important document, the mistaken modification of a critical file, the accidental sharing of a private folder, etc.

Sometimes you’re your own worst enemy. Sharing sensitive information over email with the wrong recipients is an unfortunate if not entirely too common source of data breaches. Last January, the Leicester City Council (in the U.K.) sent the wrong spreadsheet to some 27 companies. Sadly, that spreadsheet contains personal information belonging to a lot of people. If it can happen to them, it can happen to you.

One way to deal with these risks is to add a password to your most sensitive files, one-by-one. Sharing a computer becomes a worry-free situation after that, and sending email attachments will be less of a nail-biter, too. Yes, the requirement to enter a password every time you access that file may slow you down a bit, but the peace of mind is undoubtedly worth it. Just remember to always use strong passwords. In fact, click on over to the free Avast Random Password Generator whenever you need one, and instantly get a unique, near-uncrackable password you can use immediately.

Another way to deal with this is to use your Windows software to encrypt an entire folder. This is an easy process to implement and to use. There are also third-party tools you can use for full encryption. In this article, we’re going to lay all the tools in front of you to secure your system with the strongest defenses.

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