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What Is File Protection? How It Works & Different Types

by Chris Brook on Monday November 13, 2023

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When it comes to keeping sensitive information safe from intruders, file protection - safeguarding files from unauthorized access - is critical.

Data is a treasured resource, and files are the medium on which it is stored. Cybersecurity threats typically target file systems, so file protection is paramount to maintaining data security in the digital age. 

This article showcases how file protection is indispensable to keeping sensitive information from prying eyes and how it works to prevent files from being compromised. 

What Is File Protection?

File protection is the process of safeguarding files from unwarranted and unauthorized access. It involves securing file systems so that files aren’t modified, erased, deleted, or otherwise tampered with without due authority. 


While it includes physical file security, digital file protection typically starts at the operating system level and encompasses monitoring and security access controls, especially for business-critical files.

How Does File Protection Work?

An ideal place to understand how modern-day file protection works is to look at computer operating systems. They have been at the forefront of file protection since Microsoft included the Windows File Protection (WFP) sub-system in its operating system at the turn of the century.


WFP was directed at protecting core system files, especially those with no file lock, from being accidentally replaced or overwritten by computer programs. WFP worked in the background, silently restoring original copies of compromised files. 


This spawned innovative practices like tying file protection to identity-dependent access through identity access management (IAM) and structured access control lists (ACL).

Types of File Access Protection

Not all file access is created equal. Various users need different types of access that determine whether they or a program can do the following:

  • Read access: Accessing and viewing the contents of a file.
  • Write access: Viewing and modifying the contents of a file.
  • Delete access: These are higher-level write permissions that allow the removal of files.
  • Execute access: This permission allows users to execute or run a particular program.

The Different Types of File Protection

To be effective, file protection must utilize a multi-layered approach encompassing various data security areas, such as user-level permissions, access control, backup solutions, encryption mechanisms, and more.


Encryption is the backbone of cybersecurity. It is central to file protection by maintaining the confidentiality of file contents. Encryption achieves this by turning the file’s content into a ciphertext that only authorized parties can decrypt and decipher.

Encryption also safeguards data, whether it is at rest or in transit

Auditing and logging

Auditing trails and system logs provide a means of tracking file usage. It enhances file protection by providing a measure of non-repudiation to hold people accountable for file operations. It captures file actions performed like changes, deletions, transfers, and unauthorized access.

File Permissions

File protection typically starts with limiting access to unauthorized users. This enables file owners or authors to control who is granted view, write, and execute privileges on files. 


File permissions are how system administrators assign rights to individual users or groups. In computer systems, these rights aren’t meant to be wide-ranging but are restrictively targeted to specific files or folders. File permissions offer system administrators the means to bolster file protection, thereby preventing unauthorized access by adjusting access privileges when required. 

Access Control List

File permissions can easily proliferate, but an ACL enables stringent permission hygiene to be maintained. 


ACL provides a means to control access rights in a structured and centralized manner. Operating systems like Windows ushered ACLs into the mainstream by making it nearly effortless to attach well-defined user permissions to a list of files or directories belonging to a group. 


Like file permissions, ACL lists can be modified on the fly to impact file protection in real-time. However, ACLs are more granular and comprehensive than ordinary file permissions. Hence, they allow administrators to denote the level of involvement desired for each user or user group concerning shared documents. 


However, the drawback of using ACLs is their length (they tend to bloat in size), which can easily overwhelm system administrators overseeing large corporate entities. 

The best practices for file protection

File protection allows businesses to securely share files to facilitate business solutions. But for this file protection to blossom, organizations need to adopt a diverse range of best practices.

  • Strong password protection: Sensitive files must be fortified with strong password policies across user accounts. This includes requiring minimum-length character passwords with special characters, regular password updates, and other mechanisms. 
  • Multi-factor authentication (MFA): While strong passwords are ideal, multi-factor authentication bolsters security by using at least two independent categories to verify user credentials and identity.
  • Data classification: A comprehensive data classification system identifies sensitive data and prioritizes the files that need effective document security.
  • Zero-trust security: Adopting perimeter-based security has fallen out of favor due to its insufficiency to protect against numerous endpoints, remote work, and cloud-based applications. 
  • The principle of least privileges: This requires granting no more than the required access or user permissions to accomplish tasks. Privileges to files should be granted on a need-to-know basis, combined with access limits. 
  • Digital rights management (DRM): DRM enacts safeguards after a user obtains file access. Therefore, its mode of operation involves restricting activities such as copying, scanning, sharing, printing, etc., while encompassing techniques like digital watermarking
  • Providing Backup solutions: Comprehensive backup solutions offer redundancy and resilience in the event of a disruption, system failure, or cyber attacks like ransomware that render files inaccessible.

The Advantages of File Protection

Data and document security is bolstered by file protection in various, such as those listed below:

Facilitating enterprise file sharing 

Organizations frequently need to share information with corporate partners, suppliers, and many third-party contractors. This necessity for enterprise file sharing may involve proprietary information, which could prove catastrophic if it falls into the wrong hands. 


File protection helps to safeguard employee information and intellectual property infringement while protecting trade secrets and brand information. 

Preventing data breaches

In addition to intellectual property, files may also store customer credit card and financial information, including personal health information (PHI) and personally identifiable information (PII). 


Hackers love targeting this trove of data in data breaches. File protection helps safeguard this data, for example, by locking CAD files and preventing careless handling that may risk incurring data privacy violations and penalties by HIPAA or GDPR. 

Disadvantages of File Protection

Passwords are low-hanging fruit for file protection. However, this has created unintended consequences for file protection. 

An additional burden on users

File protection constitutes an additional layer of burden on users and administrators. 


For instance, the majority of file protection mechanisms start with password protection. The proliferation of digital documents and accounts requires the use of innumerable passwords to secure them. As a result, the proliferation of digital accounts and their accompanying passwords is an extra burden to users. 

Protection is on an all-or-none basis

The burden of file protection can breed bad habits. Some users embrace the mentally lazy but understandable habit of using one password for several accounts and files. But the danger is that once this single password is breached, it compromises all files and accounts, creating a bonanza for malicious actors to exploit.


File protection mechanisms, especially those that integrate DRM, IAM, and ACL in corporate settings, can grow complicated to manage. They can also demand specialized knowledge to implement. 

The absence of qualified personnel to administer them can easily result in misconfigurations and errors that undermine data security.

How Digital Guardian Can Help Protect Your Files

Digital Guardian has the expertise and the tools to protect your files, especially when sharing them with others. We provide you with persistent file protection through secure collaboration technology that travels with your files wherever they go. 


Looking to learn more? Check out our Zero Trust File Transfer solution, or book a demo with us today.


Tags:  Secure Collaboration Secure File Sharing

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