So how to begin? The first place to look, especially if your computer is relatively new, is your operating system: PC users running Windows 2000 and Macintosh folks with OS 9 probably know that a relatively strong and easy-to-use form of encryption is part of the system. For everyone else, all you need is a connection to the Net to find a number of free ways to encrypt your stuff. The gold standard for free encryption is Pretty Good Privacy, a downloadable encryption program that's considered so difficult to break, the U.S. government once treated it like munitions and wouldn't allow it to be exported. Now, however, you can download it in a matter of minutes for virtually any kind of computer at www.pgpi.org. PGP, as it's commonly known, uses public-key cryptology, a powerful form of codemaking that relies on two software-based "keys": a public one, which you give out to people so they can encode documents to you, and a private one, which you use to decrypt them. Your private key, by the way, cannot be exported.
Ever get the feeling that someone's reading your e-mail? While there are lots of ways to hide your tracks when you're browsing the Web, some people like to know that everything they store on their computer (e-mail, Word files, spreadsheets and so on) is private and for their eyes only. What they need is encryption — a way to scramble their documents so that no one else can read them. Luckily, the advent of powerful desktop computers makes this easy to accomplish. Well, sort of.