Welcome TidBITS readers and other Mac fans.

While for the most part I’ve had great luck encrypting my Mac, there are definitely a few things to be aware of and extra precautions to take. I’ve learned some lessons over the past 18 months or so of encrypting my drive, and here are my recommendations for safely using FileVault.

WARNING: FileVault is still risky and not recommended for every user. I don’t recommend it for desktop Macs or user accounts without anything sensitive in them. Don’t encrypt just because the cool kids are- make sure you’re willing to be diligent about backups and other precautions.

Okay, now for the step by step:

Picture 1-3

  1. Move your iTunes and iPhoto libraries into /Users/Shared. FileVault takes your entire home folder and encrypts it into one big file; by moving iPhoto, iTunes, and movie files out, you can keep the size of this file down and improve reliability. In iTunes, go into Prefereces:Advanced, and select where to keep your iTunes Library. Make sure you check the box that says “Keep iTunes Music Library Organized” (this screenshot should help). Then go into Advanced:Consolidate Library and iTunes will move all your files for you. For iPhoto, just move your iPhoto Library. The next time you launch iPhoto it will ask you to point it towards your library. Then again, if you have, shall we say photographs of a “private” nature, you might want to leave them where they are so the will be encrypted.
  2. Create a maintenance user account with administrative privileges. In System Preferences just click on Accounts and add the user there – make sure it’s an Administrator account. I call mine “Maintenance” (yeah, I’m so original), and gave it a really big passphrase (an obscure movie quote, with a number at the end). This account is critical- without it, if your FileVault gets corrupted, you are in serious trouble.
  3. Optional Get a whole-drive backup solution. I use SuperDuper, and an external drive. I like having a bootable backup for when things REALLY go wrong. Yes, I’ve had to use it more than once, for reasons other than FileVault.
  4. Mandatory Get an incremental backup solution. Odds are Retrospect came with your external drive and many users like that. Or just wait until Mac OS X 10.5 (“Leopard”) is released, and you can use the built-in Time Machine (I’m REALLY looking forward to that). Incremental backups keep track of changed files, while a whole-drive backup is just a clone of everything. The risk of having only a clone is that your backup might be corrupt, and without the copies of your files you won’t be able to restore.
  5. Log into your Maintenance account. Do a complete backup of your Mac to the external drive.
  6. Log back in as yourself, and back up all your files using Retrospect or whatever solution you picked.
  7. Sit down in a dark room. Light a candle. Stare at the flame. Contemplate the existence of the universe, and whether or not you’re really willing to commit to backing up every single day. If not, stop here.
  8. Go into System Preferences; click on Security. Set a master password for your computer. Make it hard to remember, and write it down in at least 3 places at home; this might be the same as the Maintenance password, since they both provide control over this computer (albeit in different ways). A safe is a good place. Your laptop bag is a bad place.
  9. Check the settings on the bottom to Require a password to wake this computer, Disable automatic login, and Use secure virtual memory.
  10. Get ready for bed, or to go out for the weekend.
  11. Click the button at the top to Turn on FileVault.
  12. Go to sleep. Take a vacation. Pick up a new hobby that takes at least a day or so to learn.

Picture 2-1

  1. When you return, your Security preferences should look like this screenshot.

That’s it! You’re now the proud owner of an encrypted home directory, and all your personal files are nice and safe. Make sure you stay up to date on those backups.

Every now and then, usually after you’ve added or deleted a lot of files, your Mac will prompt you to recover extra space from your encrypted drive. Make sure you have the time to let this run- the longest mine has taken is 20 minutes or so, but it usually finishes in 5 minutes. You don’t want to turn your Mac off during this process.

If something does crash, or the recovering space seems to take too long, you can always hold your power key down for 10 seconds to force your Mac to turn off. I don’t recommend this since it might cause some problems, but I have personally had to do it a few times. That’s why those backups are so critical.

Did I say Backups?!?