March 08, 2011, 3:02 PM — FreeOTFE may sound like a political bumper sticker, but it stands for "Free On The Fly Encryption." The "Free" part is self-explanatory; "On The Fly Encryption" refers to the encrypting/decrypting of data as it is written to or read from your hard disk. The data on your disk (either the whole disk or a portion of it, as you see fit) is stored in an encrypted form, and FreeOTFE handles all read and write requests, so that the operating system, applications, etc, operate normally. Despite what you might expect, speed impact is generally minimal and will probably not be noticed by a user under most circumstances.
The easiest and most common way to use open source program FreeOTFE is to create one or more encrypted files. These files are basically large chunks of disk space filled with encrypted data. Once you have created one, you use FreeOTFE to mount it, and it appears in Windows Explorer as any other hard disk, with a capacity equal to the file size (that is, you create a 30 gig file, and you get a 30 gig virtual hard drive). So long as it's mounted, you use it like any other drive. But when it's dismounted, the contents of the file are effectively incomprehensible without the password, which ought to be extremely hard to guess or to solve by brute force--twenty characters with a mix of cases, numbers, and punctuation is a good minimum.
Another option for FreeOTFE is encrypting an entire partition or physical hard disk. This should be done only on an empty partition, and cannot be done on the boot partition, for obvious reasons. (Other programs, such as the also-free and also-open-source TrueCrypt, can encrypt a volume "in place", encrypting existing data, and encrypt the boot disk as well.) Doing this is most useful if you have a lot of data you want encrypted.
FreeOTFE has a "no install" mode, though it does require Administrator privileges to load the drivers. Using this mode is a good way to put both FreeOTFE and an encrypted volume on a portable drive, either a flash drive or a small USB drive. If the drive is stolen or lost, its contents will be inaccessible, and you can use it on any computer where you have appropriate privileges--for example, this is ideal for transporting sensitive data between office and home environments, or between multiple work computers.