Open source FreeOTFE encrypts disks handily

Free disk encryption program free OTFA supports USB installs, hidden volumes, and PDAs.

FreeOTFE may sound like a political bumper sticker, but it stands for "Free On The Fly Encryption." The "Free" part is self-explanatory; "On The Fly Encryption" refers to the encrypting/decrypting of data as it is written to or read from your hard disk. The data on your disk (either the whole disk or a portion of it, as you see fit) is stored in an encrypted form, and FreeOTFE handles all read and write requests, so that the operating system, applications, etc, operate normally. Despite what you might expect, speed impact is generally minimal and will probably not be noticed by a user under most circumstances.

The easiest and most common way to use open source program FreeOTFE is to create one or more encrypted files. These files are basically large chunks of disk space filled with encrypted data. Once you have created one, you use FreeOTFE to mount it, and it appears in Windows Explorer as any other hard disk, with a capacity equal to the file size (that is, you create a 30 gig file, and you get a 30 gig virtual hard drive). So long as it's mounted, you use it like any other drive. But when it's dismounted, the contents of the file are effectively incomprehensible without the password, which ought to be extremely hard to guess or to solve by brute force -- twenty characters with a mix of cases, numbers, and punctuation is a good minimum.

Another option for FreeOTFE is encrypting an entire partition or physical hard disk. This should be done only on an empty partition, and cannot be done on the boot partition, for obvious reasons. (Other programs, such as the also-free and also-open-source TrueCrypt, can encrypt a volume "in place", encrypting existing data, and encrypt the boot disk as well.) Doing this is most useful if you have a lot of data you want encrypted.

FreeOTFE has a "no install" mode, though it does require Administrator privileges to load the drivers. Using this mode is a good way to put both FreeOTFE and an encrypted volume on a portable drive, either a flash drive or a small USB drive. If the drive is stolen or lost, its contents will be inaccessible, and you can use it on any computer where you have appropriate privileges -- for example, this is ideal for transporting sensitive data between office and home environments, or between multiple work computers.

In addition, there is a PDA version of FreeOTFE which creates volumes that work under Windows Mobile 2003 or later, and these volumes, if created in FAT or FAT32 format, can also be mounted on your PC. Finally, there is a version called FreeOTFE Explorer, which is "driverless," so it can be used on any system, but it supports only FAT32 drives, which are limited to 4GB files.

While FreeOTFE will work under 64-bit Windows Vista and Windows 7, it does not have signed drivers, which those systems require. The FAQ details a number of ways to overcome this, but all of them have some drawbacks or complications. Getting signed drivers is a stated development priority.

FreeOTFE is a good choice if you need to mount volumes on Windows PDAs as well as PCs, and the FreeOTFE Explorer option allows you to have an encrypted volume even when you lack Administrator privileges, both of which are reasonable use cases. (These additional programs are not part of the FreeOTFE download, but they work with FreeOTFE volumes, so it makes sense to use FreeOTFE in all the environments you work with.) In addition, FreeOTFE offers more cypher and hash options than TrueCrypt, which can be important if you have a preference or a mandate for a particular algorithm. Being free and open source, there's little reason not to test it against other encryption solutions and see if it offers a better selection of features for your needs than the competition.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags open sourcestoragefreewaresecuritysoftwareencryption

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Ian Harac

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?