All this talk about preserving digital legacies got me thinking: What about the bits we don't want to leave behind? Y'know, the risqué material? Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about.
This seems like a complicated subject. It's not. There's some data that's private, both in terms of content as well as the very fact of its existence, and your viewing of it. Let's say you look at porn. (You do.) This fact—not just the
porn itself—belongs to you. There's no need for it to be a discoverable part of your digital life, or, god forbid, your digital legacy. Here's how to make sure your private collections are in order, and our of sight.
Level One: Obfuscation
Who hasn't created a folder called "Business" only to fill it with an entirely differently kind of business? It's a hallowed tradition, enjoyed by nearly everyone who's used a computer in the last 20 years. And as ridiculous and inept as it sounds, it probably worked—then.
There was a time when hiding a folder deep within an operating system's file structure actually hid it. Family members and spouses never had a reason to explore C:/Windows/System32, much less the "Nrop" folder you cunningly stashed there. And unless anyone went out of their way to search for incriminating content, it just wouldn't come up.
Today, things are different. Both major OSes have deeply integrated and everpresent search features—Spotlight in OS X and Start menu search in Windows 7—which bring the depths of your file system bubbling to the surface with alarming ease and frequency. They prioritize file types over file locations, so your buried videos are just about as discoverable as if they were stored your "My Videos" folder. As far as hiding your shit, and keeping your bereaved family from discovering your bizarre-but-harmless-but-still-pretty-bizarre video collection, this offers only the slightest protection.
The section age-old variation on pornfuscation is the trusty file rename. Here's how it goes: Save your files, change their names to something innocuous, and switch their file extensions to something inscrutable. LadiesEatingFriedPigsFeetInLingerie.avi becomes lefpfil.dat. And it helps to sew together a little cipher, too. Something like:
While this will probably accomplish your goals with almost no initial effort, it's pretty unwieldy in the long term, and far from failsafe.
Level 2: Encryption
The word "encryption" evokes spy films, shady government agencies and more than anything, nerds. But here's the thing: It's actually super easy. It's also nearly 100% effective, unless someone very serious is looking very seriously for something seriously incriminating on your computer, in which case I probably don't want to help you out anyway. So!
Mac OS X: Creating a password-protected archive is your best option here. It's dead simple, consolidates your files, and puts your stuff one extra layer of abstraction further away from search indices and the like. To make a passworded .DMG file (an image/archive file that you can open with a simple click) from an existing folder, just do this:
• Open Disk Utility (Spotlight search Disk Utility)
• File>New>Disk Image from Folder
• Select the folder, click Image
• Select encryption (128-bit AES will do)
• Choose a unique password
And that's it! Now you have a whateveryouwant.dmg file that can't be viewed, opened or edited by anyone but yourself. Your very own little lockable porn capsule! (Ugh.)
To create a password-protected archive in Windows Vista or 7, you'll want to download a 3rd-party archive utility, like WinZip or WinRAR. And by like WinZip or WinRAR, I mean just download PeaZip. It's free, and better than the software you're used to. Then:
• Open PeaZip
• File>Create Archive
• Select the files you want in the archive
• Click the Lock icon under the Output selector
• Select "Encrypt Also File Names"
• Select archive type "PEA" (the fact that you're using this program's proprietary format, as opposed to something like ZIP, means that it'll be even less identifiable as, well, what it is.)
And there you go.
Level 3: Liquidation
Seriously, people, stop storing incriminating material on your computer. You're already getting this stuff from the internet, so just leave it on the internet. Stream videos online, and look at pictures without downloading them. It's easy.
Firefox, Chrome, Safari and even Internet Explorer have private browsing modes, which don't accumulate history, cookies, or local caches of any kind. Use them. Your digital self will thank you.
If you have more tips and tools to share, please drop some links in the comments-your feedback is hugely important to our Saturday How To guides. And if you have any topics you'd like to see covered here, please let me know. Happy secret-keeping, folks!