How do I Set up Password Protection?

Brendan McGuigan

In the modern world many people keep some of their most important and sensitive documents on their computer or web server. Financial records, important photographs, and business correspondence may all be kept on one machine, and making sure that not just anyone can view them is a priority for some people. For this reason, a number of simple password protection solutions have developed over the past two decades, and in the past few years these have become even easier to use and more powerful.

A sign in interface with a username and password.
A sign in interface with a username and password.

Setting up a password protection system on your personal computer is a first step to protecting your data. How you choose to do that depends largely on how secure you need the information to be. While most services are robust enough to stop casual viewers of your computer, and even those who may have a malicious intent, they will likely not keep out a dedicated hacker with access to proper tools and extended periods of time.

Screen names and passwords should be unique to make them harder for hackers to crack.
Screen names and passwords should be unique to make them harder for hackers to crack.

Many operating systems have their own password protection schemes built directly into them. In the Mac OS, for example, each user can set up their own profile, which they can then secure with their own password. This stops casual users from logging in to your computer if you leave it unattended, and viewing your files, but is a fairly low level of security.

OSX also has a native mode for password protection at the firmware level, offering a much greater degree of security than a simple user login. This requires installing a non-default application from the operating system, and running the Firmware Password Utility. And for users who want to enable password protection on a specific file, a number of third-party software solutions are available for OSX which accomplish this. A native solution is also available by creating a disk image with the Disk Utility, and encrypting it with its own password.

On a Windows® computer there are also built-in password protection systems, similar to those found on a Mac. Users may have their own logins and passwords, limiting casual access to files and applications, but still remaining quite open to dedicated intruders. More sophisticated third-party applications exist which can provide a much higher level of security, although they are still far from perfect, as they must exist over the operating system. A BIOS level password may be enabled, depending on the BIOS used, which can afford a much higher degree of security.

Hardware security devices may also be employed, and some computers come with built in security systems. One common form found on modern laptops is the fingerprint lock, which disallows the computer from being turned on unless a match is found for the fingerprint of the main user. Some computers also include their own hardware-level password devices, which are generally more secure than software passwords.

There are a number of different ways to set up password protection on a remote website, but the most common method utilizes the .htaccess file on Apache servers. The .htaccess file can be linked to a .htpasswd file, which includes an encrypted password and username, which can limit access to directories, files, or an entire server. Although not an absolutely secure set up, the password protection offered by a properly-configured .htaccess file is quite high, and setup is incredibly easy. Many web hosts even include an easy user-interface within their web access panel, allowing users to set up password protection via an .htaccess file through their browser.

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