Working Mac

You may not be a secret agent or an inventor of aproduct that will change the world, but you surely have documents and data on your Mac that you don't want others to see. Whether it's sensitivereports, budgets, and production plans, or passwords, credit card numbers, and PIN numbers, you need to protect your personal information from prying eyes.

Unlike OS 9's Finder, Panther (Mac OS X 10.3) has no Encrypt function to protect individual files. The FileVault function can encrypt your entire Home folder, but that's overkill for most users. (And FileVault has other problems; I don't recommend using it.)

So how do you make sure that no one else can get at your data? If you've got lots of sensitive files (and especially if you need to send them via e-mail), software such as PGP Personal 8.0 (   ; April 2003) offers advanced encryption functions you can use.

But if your security needs are less pressing and you're concerned mostly about protecting your data and files on site, turn first to functions and software built into Panther: the Keychain and encrypted disk images.

Lock the Door to Your Mac

The Keychain has been in most versions of Mac OS since System 7. In Panther, the Keychain automatically keeps track of passwords for applications, servers, and Web sites. You can also use it to defend business secrets.

To turn Keychain into your security guard, open Keychain Access (Applications: Utilities), and click on Note in the Keychain Access toolbar. Enter a descriptive title in the Name field of the window that appears, and then type or paste the data you want to protect into the Note field. You're not limited to short things, such as a password or a credit card number. I pasted several megabytes of text into one secure note.

To access your secure notes later, open Keychain Access, find the note in the list of protected items, and click on its name. Select the Show Password option and enter your password; you'll then see the note's contents. To enter the contents in another program, click on Copy Note To Clipboard, enter your password again, and paste into any text field or document.

You can store secure notes in your default Keychain, or you can create a second Keychain solely for these notes. The advantage of using a second Keychain for notes is that you can set a different password, and you can also find your notes more easily; your main Keychain may contain dozens or even hundreds of items. To make another Keychain, select New Keychain from the File menu. Enter a name and a location, and then click on Create. Finally, enter a password for the Keychain, type it again to verify it, and click on OK.

Keychain Lockdown To make your Keychain and the information in it as safe as possible, change its default settings. By default, your Keychain is named "login." The password you use to access the Keychain is the same as your login password, and the Keychain unlocks when you log in to your Mac. To give your Keychain its own password, go to the Edit menu and select Change Password For Keychain User Name. Change the password (to something you won't forget).

Make sure your Keychain is locked. The lock icon in the Keychain Access toolbar shows you the status of selected Keychains and items in them. To lock an open Keychain, click on the lock icon.

To change security settings for individual items in a Keychain, click on the item's name in the Keychain Access window and then click on the Access Control tab. In the resulting window, increase security by selecting the Confirm Before Allowing Access and the Ask For Keychain Password options.

Encrypt Secret Files

While you can enter a lot of text in a secure note, you can't add files to your Keychain. However, you can encrypt files, and you can even use disk images to store them in a virtual safe.

OS X's disk images are virtual disks, stored as single files, that can hold many individual files. (You've probably seen disk images, since they often contain software and installer files for programs you download over the Internet.) You can create your own disk image that encrypts files as you add them to the disk and then decrypts them automatically when you copy them to a folder or your desktop.

To create an encrypted disk image, open Disk Utility (Applications: Utilities) and click on the New Image icon in the toolbar. In the sheet that appears, enter a name and a location for your disk image, choose a size and a format, and choose whether you want the disk image to be encrypted.

If you plan to store a few files in this disk image, choose a size of 2.5MB or 5MB; otherwise, leave room for additional files. To protect your data, choose AES-128 from the Encryption pop-up menu. This 128-bit encryption is strong enough for all but intelligence agencies. Finally, choose Read/Write Disk Image from the Format pop-up menu.

When you click on the Create button, Disk Utility shows the progress of the operation and then displays a New Password dialog box. Enter a password there and in the Verify field. Don't select the Remember Password option -- you'll need to enter the password each time you want to mount the disk image, but your information will be much more secure. Click on OK.

Disk Utility mounts the disk image, and you can copy files to it immediately. As you do so, OS X encrypts your files. To use them, double-click on them inside the disk image's volume, or copy them to another folder on your Mac. When you're finished, unmount the disk image; any user with physical access to your Mac can read and copy the files when the disk image is mounted on your desktop.

Because a disk image works the same way as any other disk -- a hard disk, a removable disk, or a network volume -- you unmount it by clicking on the disk image's volume (not the .dmg file) and selecting File: Eject, or by dragging the volume to the Trash. If you want to delete the disk image itself, drag the .dmg file to the Trash and then empty the Trash.

Insurance for Your Sensitive Files

With the Keychain and encrypted disk images, you can protect the sensitive data on your Mac. If someone steals your iBook or PowerBook, or if you lose it, no one will be able to get at your data or files.

Put On Their Thinking Caps

Your boss is asking for five proposals tomorrow, and you haven't just hit a mental roadblock -- you can't even start the car. Software aimed at organizing your ideas can get you on the highway. Two new programs in this field are MindCad's Pyramid (www.mindcad.com) and Zengobi's Curio (www.zengobi.com).

In the $99 Curio 1.0, you can brainstorm using text, images, Web-site bookmarks, and movies. But if you're starting from scratch, Curio will search Web sites for relevant materials and bring them into the Curio workspace, embedding links to the originals. The program runs on OS X 10.2.7 and higher.

The $29 Pyramid 1.0 is a basic outlining tool for arranging your ideas in a tree-like structure. It's compatible with OS X 10.2 and 10.3.

There are many other applications that can stimulate your thought processes. For more information, see "Tame Your Brain," October 2003. -- terri stone

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