Why is encryption important?

Encryption is the process of encoding digital information in such a way that only authorised parties can view it.

Individual files can be encrypted, as can folders or entire disk volumes and USB storage devices. Encryption software uses an algorithm to encode information and a decryption key or password to decrypt the information.

Some types of encryption provide greater protection than others, the type and level of encryption used should correspond to the sensitivity of the data being protected.

As a general rule, more bits equals stronger encryption, therefore, 256-bit encryption is stronger than 128-bit encryption; the latter should, ideally, be the minimum level of encryption used.

In addition to securing data, encryption can also be used to verify the sender’s identity and the integrity of the data.

Software for Encryption

There are a number of software applications available for encrypting data. The UK Data Archive recommends the use of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) standard technology.

This is available as open-source versions (GnuPG), or as commercial software (PGP). Encryption with such software requires the creation of a public and private key pair and a passphrase.

The private PGP key and passphrase are used to digitally sign each encrypted file, and thus allow the recipient to validate the sender’s identity. The recipient’s public PGP key is installed by the sender in order to encrypt files, so that only the authorised recipient can decrypt them.

Steps to encrypt data files for deposit with the UK Data Service, using the PGP

Once only:


  • Install a PGP encryption software, such as GnuPG.
  • Create your own public/private key pair and passphrase.
  • Download the UK Data Archive Public Key and unzip it.
  • Import this Public Key into the PGP software.

Every time files need encrypting:


  • Select files for encryption.
  • Select the UK Data Archive Public Key.
  • Digitally sign the files to be encrypted using your private key and passphrase.
  • Encrypt selected files using the UK Data Archive Public Key.
  • Send files to the UK Data Archive via secure file transfer protocol or through recorded post on a hard drive.

Other commonly used encryption software


  • BitLocker– standard on selected editions of Windows; for the encryption of disk volumes and USB devices.
  • FileVault2 – standard on Apple Macs; for full disc encryption.
  • VeraCrypt – multi-platform encryption software (Windows, Mac and Linux); for full-disk and container encryption.
  • Axcrypt – open-source file-level encryption for Windows.

We have created video tutorials on how to use a variety of encryption software programmes available on our Youtube Channel.