Encryption is a vital part of anyone’s online security toolkit. By encoding data with ciphers known only to the user (and the person they are sending data to), encryption tools make it much harder to read messages, harvest credit card details, and track your path around the World Wide Web.

But there are many different encryption methods and tools on the market. Some shield your web traffic, some only deal with emails. Some focus on the data on your hard drive, and some seem to do very little at all. So should you pick encryption tools to ensure that you are properly protected? Let’s find out.

Why we need encryption: A brief introduction

Before we start, let’s be very clear: not encrypting your data is a very bad course of action. There are many reasons for this.

As we touched on earlier, cybercriminals will happily target users on public wifi who haven’t encrypted their connections, but encrypted data is a much less tempting target.

If you need to work remotely, encryption will wrap your emails and attachments in a protective sheath, transporting them to your office or clients safely. That way, you can minimise the dangers of theft or corporate espionage.

And encryption also shields users against surveillance. If we don’t apply strong ciphers to our web traffic, the state or private companies find it much easier to log our activity. If you aren’t comfortable with MI6 or the NSA knowing more about you than your partner, then you definitely need to add encryption to your connection.

So what’s the problem? As we’ll see, there are plenty of ways to get encryption wrong, leaving users exposed. And if you believe that your connection is secure, that’s possibly worse than having no encryption at all.

How to pick the right encryption software to protect your online activity

When it comes to choosing the right tools to encrypt your data, it all depends on what you need to encrypt. Not all of us will need a full suite of protective tools, so choose the ones from this list that apply to you. And if you need total protection, add them all to your armoury.

However, be aware that encryption comes with a cost to performance, so going overboard can compromise streaming or gaming speeds – something to keep in mind as you make your decisions.

  1. Choose a VPN you can trust

Our first encryption method is to use a Virtual Private Network. VPNs apply two important protective processes to the data you transmit. Firstly, they route your traffic through third-party servers across the world. This assigns you with an anonymous IP address.

Secondly, VPNs apply encryption to everything you send. However, not all VPNs are equal. To get a feel for what an elite VPN provides, you’ll find NordVPN reviewed here. But providers like ExpressVPN, Private Internet Access, PureVPN, and Cyberghost are almost as good.

When choosing your provider, check for 256-bit AES encryption and OpenVPN or IKEv2 protocols (for Android users). This provides a gold standard of protection for the data you send. Kill switches, Smart DNS, strong IP leak protection, and “Double VPN” features will also help. But the encryption is key.

Don’t be fooled by budget providers who promise much. They tend to fail when it comes to security and essentially function as a form of adware. We’ve had elite providers like ExpressVPN and NordVPN reviewed thoroughly, and their protection has very few leaks. Go for them instead.

  1. Be careful when picking email encryption software

You may also want to switch to encrypted email to complement your VPN (while if you only use email, you may not even need the VPN). In this case, a few extra considerations are worth thinking about.

Firstly, choose between asymmetric and symmetric key encryption. In general, symmetric key-based encryption works best for private email accounts, as it’s far simpler and more accessible.

Check the standard of encryption closely as well. Remember that we recommended AES 256-bit encryption for VPNs? Well, the same standard should apply for encrypted email services. Incidentally, you can also apply this to Word documents and Adobe .pdfs – adding double encryption to the attachments you send.

Finally, check reviews of email services to make sure they are what they seem. If you need a quick suggestion, ProtonMail tends to be popular and offers a range of affordable packages.

  1. Encrypt your local data securely

Our third and final suggestion about choosing encryption software is to download a tool to encrypt the data on your laptop or smartphone.

Systems like Windows 10 do come with their own encryption tools, but these can be hard to use and inflexible. Instead, we would recommend investigating third-party encryption tools like VeraCrypt or AxCrypt.

These tools tend to offer 256-bit encryption for both local and Cloud storage, so they are great for business uses. And they go well beyond the protection offered by Microsoft.

If you’re an Android user, there’s another point to consider. You can encrypt your phone entirely via its settings menu. But this can hog resources and make things unbearably slow.

Instead, third-party encryption apps can lock away sensitive files without affecting performance too much. For instance, Safe Camera secures your photos. That way, you can stay safe and enjoy decent data speeds.

Get your encryption setup right to shield your online activity

Whether you use a smartphone or a laptop, or if you focus mainly on email, or need complete protection, there’s an encryption solution waiting to be installed. Hopefully, we’ve pointed you in the right direction. So take action now, and secure your data as you would your home. In a dangerous online environment, inaction is not an option.