There are times when it pays to be extra cautious about the security of your data. You might be planning a surprise party or trip for a loved one and need to hide the preparations, or maybe you're simply worried about security. Whatever the reason, both Windows Vista itself and various third-party utilities can help to set your mind at ease.
Setting a file's hidden attributes
By default, Vista doesn't display hidden files or folder, and it's easy to change a file's attributes to 'hidden'. First, select the file or folder that you want to hide. Right-click on the file and select the Properties option from the pop-up menu.
A window with five tabs pops up. On the General tab, you'll see the Attributes section. Make sure that the Hidden tick box is selected. Now press the Advanced button, and if ticked, deselect the box marked 'Index this file for faster searching'.
Now dismiss the Advanced Attributes window and do the same to the File or Folder Attributes window. If you're making a folder hidden, a new pop-up window will appear, asking if you want to set the hidden attribute on all sub-folders and files, too. This is a good idea. It will protect any existing content if an administrator who knows the path into the top-level folder you're making invisible enters it by hand.
Notice that the file or folder doesn't actually disappear from view until you navigate away from the parent folder and press [F5] to refresh your view. Once you do, everything you set to hidden disappears. The question is: how do you get it back?
Viewing hidden files
To see the files or folders you've hidden, open up the Control Panel. Click on the Appearance and Personalisation section and locate Folder Options. One of the options here is Show Hidden Files and Folders. Selecting this produces a pop-up window of file viewing options.
Click the View tab and you'll see a list of advanced settings for file viewing options. On this list, you'll see the option Hidden Files and Folders. Under this are two choices, letting you either hide or show hidden files. If you can't see these options, click on the Hidden Files option to expand the view.
Select the option to show hidden files and dismiss the pop-up before refreshing your view of the folder containing your hidden data. It should all now be visible to your account, while remaining hidden to others who don't have the Show Hidden Files option set and have read access to the parent directory.
You can also simply hide folders from the Vista Indexing Service so that the search function can't find them. To do this, enter the phrase 'indexing options' into Vista's Search utility. This will bring up a pop-up window of the same name. Now press the Modify button and another window pops up, detailing all of the locations on the hard disk that the indexing service includes.
Now we need to drill down into the disk's folder structure to find the folder that shouldn't be included in the machine's index. To do this, first press the Show All Locations button at the bottom of the window.
Accept the resultant User Account Control warning that interrupts you, and the window duly changes to include the local disk. Double-click on this icon and you'll see that it's a tree structure. Navigate to the folder that you want to remove from the indexing service and deselect its accompanying tick box to enforce this.
However, simply setting the hidden attribute on files and folders and then de-indexing them isn't a very advanced way to protect your very sensitive files – and what about hiding running applications? What we need is a more active solution. This is where third-party software developers can help out.
My Lockbox is a free utility that will securely hide your files from prying eyes. You do this by placing the files and folders inside a special folder called a lockbox. This remains hidden from all users and software on your system, including both the Administrator and System accounts. It also remains hidden from Vista itself. Without the password to open it, it's also impossible for other people using your account to see its contents.
Installation is very simple. You'll be asked to enter a password and hint to access your lockbox, as well as the location that you want your lockbox to reside. By default, this is under your Documents folder. The only real problem with installing My Lockbox is that the last step of the installation process is an old school reboot.
When the system is up and running again, you'll see a My Lockbox desktop icon. You should remove this in situations where you think its presence may give others reason to believe that you're hiding something. On the Start menu, the My Lockbox program group gives access to your lockbox, as well as the My Lockbox Control Panel. Access your lockbox first.
On doing so, you'll be asked for the password you entered and confirmed during installation. Entering it opens the lockbox in a window just like any other folder – which technically it is. You'll also see a small bubble window and an open orange padlock icon appear on the taskbar and toolbar respectively, both of which are reminding you that the lockbox is now open.
To lock the lockbox again, simply right-click on the toolbar icon and select the option Lock and Quit. To hide the taskbar icon and control other aspects of how My Lockbox works, either left-click on the toolbar icon or access the My Lockbox Control Panel through the Start menu.
My Lockbox control panel
My Lockbox's control panel displays the lockbox's status (locked or unlocked) and lets you lock and unlock it using the buttons on the left-hand side. Using the three icons at the top right of the screen, you can (from left to right) set the folder you want to use as your lockbox, delete it from the disk or open it.
In Vista, changing the location or deleting your lockbox seems to lock the Control Panel, but all is not as it seems. On your taskbar, you'll see a flashing task icon. Click it and accept the subsequent pesky User Account Control window, and the Control Panel will spring back into life.
Click the Advanced button and the Control Panel will expand to include a second section containing four tabs. The About tab simply allows you to download the latest version and send the developers feedback.
Now click on the Options tab. To access your lockbox in Windows Safe mode, click the first tickbox on this tab. To ensure that My Lockbox doesn't display the tell-tale toolbar balloon window when you unlock it, select the second option. You can also set a hot key sequence that will allow you to enter your password and get into your lockbox straight from the desktop. If you make any changes, remember to press the Save button and accept the resulting User Access Control.
The third tab enables you to poll for updates at a set interval. You can suppress the warning that My Lockbox is about to access the Internet to poll for updates on this window, too. If others can easily overlook your screen when you're logged in, suppressing this warning is a good idea.
Finally, there's the Password tab. Enter your current password and this tab enables you to change it, as well as the password reminder question. After changing the password, remember to press the Save button and then you can deal with the subsequent User Account Control window that will be waiting on the taskbar.
Magic boss key
There's one last piece of the puzzle that we need to cover: hiding running applications from the prying eyes of people who come up and surprise you at a moment's notice. Luckily, a free utility called Magic Boss Key will enable us to do this.
When you press both left and right mouse buttons together, it will hide your open windows. It also removes them from the task bar, from the Aero interface's 3D carousel and even from [ALT]+[TAB]. To get them back, simply press both mouse buttons simultaneously again. After downloading, installation is simple. Once complete, the Magic Boss Key configuration window pops up.
The first pair of radio buttons enable you to switch Magic Boss Key on and off by pressing both mouse buttons or [F12]. The first tickbox effectively enables or disables the utility. The two other tickboxes enable you to control the utility's ability to hide your desktop icons. The first makes it hide your applications and the second hides the taskbar.
If your applications and taskbar are cloaked in this way, you can still hit the [Windows] key to bring up the Start menu. Hiding a playing movie or an audio file is no good if the sound doesn't also stop when you hide it, so the next option enables you to do just that. Finally, there's an option to start Magic Boss Key at system start-up. If you make any changes, save your settings and they'll take effect immediately.