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File Encryption with AxCrypt

by Alan German

There is an enormous wealth of free software available from the open-source community so, when you are looking for a specific utility, it's not hard to find something that will readily do the job at hand. When it comes to file encryption, one of the simpler open-source programs you can use is AxCrypt from Axantum Software AB in Sweden.

AxCrypt integrates directly into Windows Explorer and, when you right click on a file, the program provides a context-sensitive menu. If the file is not encrypted, the primary option is to encrypt it. Conversely, if the selected item is encrypted, then the first menu choice is to decrypt the file. So you can very easily encrypt or decrypt an individual file. You just need to enter a password (or a pass-phrase) and remember what you entered! By default, the program adds a .axx extension to each encrypted file. AxCrypt will also operate on a specified folder, to encrypt or decrypt all of the files contained in the folder.



When encrypting a file, AxCrypt demands that you enter the desired password twice in order to ensure that the two entries are consistent. The same password must be entered before the file will be decrypted. If you don't like always having to enter passwords, you can have AxCrypt remember the password for encryption and/or decryption. There is an option to clear the password from memory, but the cache is also cleared automatically when you either logoff or reboot. For even greater security, you can have AxCrypt generate a random string of characters for use as a pass-phrase, and store this as a file on a removable drive for subsequent use.

An interesting option is to create a self-decrypting file using the "Copy to an EXE file" option. The resulting executable file can be sent to an individual who does not have AxCrypt installed on their computer. Obviously, you also have to send them the password to decrypt the file (presumably in a separate E-mail message). Then they just run the EXE file, give the password, and the unencrypted original file is produced on their system.

AxCrypt users have some other tricks they can use. Double-clicking on an encrypted file prompts for the password, and then opens the file in its native application. This gives you the possibility of modifying an encrypted file "on the fly". For example, you could double click on an encrypted text file containing a set of userids and passwords. Respond to the prompt for the AxCrypt password, and the file opens in Notepad, displaying the plain text. You can then edit the file in order to change one of the userid/password combinations. When you save the file in Notepad, the encrypted file appears back on your hard disk. You just changed the data contents without having to specifically decrypt and re-encrypt the file. Neat!

AxCrypt also has a "Shred and Delete" option that will securely remove any file from your system by overwriting the file with random data prior to permanently removing it.

The program is released under the GNU General Public License (GPL), and uses the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) with 128-bit keys. Axantum's web site indicates that AxCrypt will run under most versions of Windows, from Windows 95 through XP; however, I can confirm that it will also run just fine under Vista.

So, using AxCrypt, you can easily encrypt and decrypt your sensitive files. Just don't forget your password. There is no undo function!

Bottom Line:

Version (Open source)
Svante Seleborg
Axantum Software AB

Originally published: January, 2009

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