How to protect specific folders and files in Windows

Learn how to hide or encrypt specific files in Windows to better protect them.

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You can – and should – protect your Windows computer with a strong and secure login password or other means of authentication. There may be specific folders and files on your PC for which you want an extra layer of security. Windows offers you a number of options:

  1. You can easily hide a folder or file in Explorer so that it is not visible. The disadvantage here is that someone can easily see the file by simply choosing to view all hidden files.
  2. Or, more effectively, you can encrypt the file. Encryption adds a certificate to the file so that only you can access it. You can then back up the encryption key and add a password to further protect the file.

SEE: Windows 10 security: a guide for business leaders (TechRepublic Premium)

First open Explorer on your Windows computer. Select a folder or file (or files) that you want to hide. Right-click on your selection and select Properties from the menu. In the Properties dialog box, click the Hidden check box. Then click OK (Figure A).

Figure A

If you can still see the folder or files, it probably means that the option to view hidden files is enabled. Click the View tab and clear the Hidden files check box. The files should then disappear (Figure B).

Figure B

Hiding folders and files is a simple process, but with a number of clear disadvantages. First, if you want to work with those files, you must make them visible or re-enable the option to view hidden files, which overrides the entire purpose of hiding them. Secondly, if someone gets access to your computer, that person can easily enable the option for hidden files, which acts as a red flag for potentially secret or sensitive files.

A more secure option is to encrypt each folder or files that you want to protect. Windows offers a built-in encryption tool called Encrypted File Service (EFS). EFS is available in Windows 10 Pro, Windows 10 Enterprise, Windows 8 / 8.1 Pro, Windows 8 / 8.1 Enterprise, Windows 7 Professional, Windows 7 Ultimate and Windows 7 Enterprise. If you encrypt a file with EFS, only you can access the file through your Windows account. Other accounts, even those with administrator rights on the machine, cannot access this.

To set the encryption, place a USB stick in your computer, with which you make a backup of the encryption key. Select and right click on the specific folder or files. Select Properties from the menu. In the Properties box, click the Advanced button and then check the box to encrypt content to protect data. Click OK (Figure C). Back in the Properties window, click OK or Apply.

Figure C

If you try to encrypt a file or files, a message appears asking if you want to encrypt the file and its parent folder or just the file. If the file is encrypted but not its folder and you change that file, an unencrypted version of the file may be temporarily saved as you edit it. In addition, new files that you create in the folder are not encrypted. Select the desired option and then click OK (Figure D).

Figure D

If you try to encrypt a folder, you will be asked if you only want to make changes to this folder or to this folder, subfolder, and files. In this case you probably want to choose the last option that is selected by default. Click OK (Figure E).

Figure E

A message appears asking you to back up your encryption key. Make sure a USB stick or other removable medium is inserted in your computer. Choose the first option to make a backup now. The Certificate Export Wizard appears with a welcome screen. Click next. In the next file format screen, keep the default selections. Click next. On the Security screen, enter and re-enter a password to protect the encryption key. On the File to export screen, type the name of the file that you want to save to the USB drive. Click next. Click on Finish in the last screen. A message appears that the export was successful. Click OK (Figure F).

Figure F

As long as you are logged into Windows with your own account, you can access and work with the folders or files that you have encrypted. If another person logs in or tries to access the files without your account or encryption key, that person will receive a message that the document may be read-only or encrypted.

To decrypt the folder or files, simply reverse the process. Log in with your account, right-click on the folder or files and select Properties. In the Properties box, click the Advanced button. Clear the check box to encrypt content to protect data. Click OK. In the Properties box, click OK or Apply. Choose the option to apply changes to the folder or folder, subfolders and files, or the file and the parent folder. Click OK. The folder or file is then decoded (Figure G).

Figure G

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