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Password Protect Your Files in OS X

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Everybody has secrets, from very personal photographs a list of your high school crushes, you have files on your Mac that you don't want people to see. Though OS X doesn't just let you add a password to any old file, there are some ways that you can use to password protect your sensitive information. In this tutorial we will go over some tips that you can use to help keep these files safe.


Screencast


How to Password Protect Your Files in OS X

MacHider

MacHider is a one-of-a-kind application from MacPaw that adds a feature that should be in every operating system, the ability to hide files and password protect their visibility. It has a free trial available on MacPaw.com, which has a limit on the amount of protected files.

You can hide entire folders along with files in MacHider.
You can hide entire folders along with files in MacHider.

MacHider is a really easy to use application, all you have to do is drop files on the window and switch on "Hide." Once activated, you will notice that the file has disappeared. Turning MacHider off for that file will make the file appear once again.

If you want, you can create file groups to better organize the files you have hidden. Create a new group by clicking the plus button at the bottom. Right click the newly created group and select Edit Group.

Here you can apply a Group Name and Icon. You can choose your own, or from a their list. "Auto Hide" is an optional setting that causes MacHider to automatically hide the files within the group when it's closed, and unhide it when it is opened. Click Apply to save your changes. To add files to your new group, just drag and drop them onto it. Because I enabled Auto Hide, when I close MacHider the folder is automatically hidden. Loading MacHider up again will unhide the file automatically.

The last thing you need to do in MacHider is enable a password. Click the green lock button in the toolbar to bring up the presences window. Check "Require Password" and enter a new password. Now when you open MacHider, you will have to provide that password to reveal your files.

Don't forget that password! If you get locked out, you're going to have a real tough time getting them back.


Password Protected Disk Images

While MacHider is a great way to password protect your files and folders, it does cost money. If you're looking for a free way to protect your stuff, OS X has you covered for this one. It does come with a catch however. But we'll get to that.

When you download a new application, it will most likely come in a DMG file. These are the files that you open up and you drag the app onto the Applications folder to install it. This is a disk image. It's like a folder but is technically a file. OS X lets you create encrypted disk images that you can put your stuff in.

Encrypted disk images is the free alternative to MacHider.  It does have some limitations, however.
Encrypted disk images is the free alternative to MacHider. It does have some limitations, however.

Open up Disk Utility and click "Create Image" in the toolbar. Give your disk image a file name, this will be visible on your system. Then give your image an image name, make sure it's identifiable.

The disk size is where it can get a bit tricky. Let's say the folder I want to protect is just shy of 20mb. Back in disk utility, you want to set the disk size to a custom amount of 20mb. Give it a couple extra megabytes so there is no issues later on. Leave the format as Mac OS Extended (Journaled) and set the encryption to 256-bit AES. This makes it very secure.

Click "Create" to create the disk image. Disk Utility will ask you to set the password for the image. Choose a safe password and enter it twice. Make sure you disable the "Remember password in Keychain" checkbox, otherwise you won't be asked to enter a password when opening the disk.

On your Desktop, you will now see a new image mounted to your system, this is the image we just created! Go ahead and add the files you want to keep safe to the image. It may take a bit, as it needs to encrypt all of the data. Go ahead and close and unmount the disk when you're done. The next time you want to access those files, double click your DMG file and you'll be asked to enter your password. Remember to not save the password in your Keychain! The disk will mount and you can access your files.

The catch to this method is that the disk image is locked to the file size you set it when you created it. You will need to create a new image with a larger size if you need more space.

Tip: Don't forget to un-mount the disk when you're done using it! You only need to enter a password to mount the disk, not access the files within it.

Microsoft Word

If you own Microsoft Word for Mac, you can require a password to open and edit the file from within the application.

Open a Word document and open Word Preferences. Select the "Security" tab. Here you can set a password to open the document and a password to edit the document. Go ahead and enter a password that will be required when opening the file as well as a modification password.

Open Password requires users to enter a password to see the document.  Modification password requires users to enter a password to edit the document.
Microsoft Word's Password Protection Features

If you entered a modification password, I recommend you enable the Read-Only recommendation checkbox. Click "OK" and reenter your passwords. Keep in mind that these passwords will only apply to this document. Make sure to save your changes, and close Word. Now you will notice that the document icon has a big lock on it, and you can't Quick-View it without the password. Opening the document prompts you to enter the View password.

The "Edit Document" password is optional if you enabled the "Read Only" option. Once you've correctly entered the password, your document will open.

Tip: You can also set a password on a windows machine and it will carry over to OS X.

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Adobe Acrobat

Much like Microsoft Word, you can password protect PDF documents from within Adobe Acrobat. Keep in mind that this feature is not available for the free Adobe Reader.

To begin, open a PDF document in Acrobat, click "File" and select "Properties." Go to the "Security" tab, and under the "Security Method" drop down, select "Password Security."

Adobe Acrobat has a lot of security settings, you can even sign your documents with digital signatures for extra protection.
Adobe Acrobat has a lot of security settings, you can even sign your documents with digital signatures for extra protection.

Next, the Password Security dialog will open up. All you have to do is enable "Require a password to open the document" checkbox and enter a password. Click "OK" and reenter your password. Close the properties window and save your changes. Go ahead and quit Acrobat. Just like the Word document, the PDF now has a big lock on the icon and can't be Quick-Viewed. Opening the document will prompt you for a password. Entering that password correctly will let you see the document.


FileVault

FileVault is the last method we'll go over in this tutorial. While it doesn't actually make you enter a password when trying to open a file, it does encrypt the file. Meaning that if your computer was stolen, your data can't be accessed without your password. This is done through hard-drive encryption or what Apple calls FileVault. I recommend turning on FileVault for people who own MacBooks. Because your computer is portable, you have a higher chance of it being stolen.

FileVaut is disabled by default. To enable it, make sure you have at least two hours free ahead of you, because it does take a long time. Open System Preferences and go to the "Security and Privacy" tab, click the lock in the lower left to unlock the settings. Now select "Turn On FileVault."

FileVault is a really secure way to encrypt your files.
FileVault is a really secure way to encrypt your files.

OS X Will make sure that all users have a password, if they don't, you'll need to set one for them. It will then give you a 24-character recovery key. Do not lose that key. If you get locked out of that computer, you can use that key to unlock your computer. If you want, you can have Apple store the recovery key for you. If you choose to let them store it, set up three security questions.

Once you've set up all the required settings, make a cup of coffee and prepare for a good long wait while your hard drive is encrypted. You can use your computer, but I don't recommend it. The more you use your computer while it's encrypting: the longer it'll take.

After the disk has locked, you'll be required to login to your Mac right after you pressed the power button, rather than waiting until it's booted. This lets the computer unlock the hard drive with your password.

Tip: Don't lose that recovery key! If you lose your recovery key, you will not be able to get your data. No body can unlock the data, not even the folks at Apple. It's gone.

File Security Tips

While some of the methods we covered in this tutorial are secure, not all of them are impossible to crack. If you are worried about somebody taking your personal data from your computer, here are some great tips that you can follow to help keep you and your data safe.

  1. Don't put it on your computer. While it's nice to have a machine keep your data at hand, you don't always need to put it there. To put it simply, if you're scared about losing it and don't need to, don't put it on the computer. There are plenty of great physical ways to keep your data safe.
  2. Don't share your passwords. It's such a simple thought, but I see so many people do it, and get burned for it. Don't share your passwords. Not even with your mother.
  3. Make good passwords. There are a lot of great articles and tools out there that can help you make really strong and memorable passwords. Also keep in mind that it's not always humans that may try to crack your data, there are computer programs that do the work as well.
  4. Change your passwords. Make it a monthly or bi-monthly habit to change your passwords. This is a really good way to help keep your files secure.
  5. Keep a passwo rd book. I have hundreds of different passwords I use, and I cannot remember all of them. Get a journal or notebook and write down your passwords. Keep it in a very safe place. This is a great way to help prevent you from forgetting your passwords.
  6. Watch out for phishing scams. You've probably heard of them before, a phishing scam is a website that disguises itself to look legit, but actually steals your information. Use an up-to-date browser and always double check the URL before entering any valuable information.
  7. Don't enter valuable information on Public WiFi. Public WiFi is a life-saver, but it's in no way secure. Don't enter any valuable information on a public WiFi network. Other people can intercept that data.
  8. Find out what other people are saying. You're not the only one on the Internet, and doing a quick Google search on a site is a great way to help make sure it's safe. Chances are, if it isn't safe. Somebody has probably made a warning.
  9. Encrypt your backups. If you use Time Machine to backup your data, make sure you encrypt the backups so people can't just plug their computer in to the drive and get your files.
  10. Trust your gut. If a site looks sketchy, it probably is.
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