Security Minded: Drive Encryption

The Need

Where do I begin? Even before (maybe especially before) storage devices were portable, they were still vulnerable to theft, due more to their high resale value than the questionable value of their contents. Today, the market value of even a brand-new desktop computer may not be worth the potential consequences of being caught. But, the lucrative identity theft trade has given rise to an entirely different motive for computer, tablet, and cellphone theft. In this case, the device is simply a means to an end.

But theft and the obvious concern over losing such easily and commonly misplaced devices as thumb drives are far from the only reason to encrypt hard drive data. Today, for instance, international travelers may be subject to the copy and search of their hard drives, as authorized by the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement's "Policy Regarding Border Search of Information" (July 16, 2008), which, among other things, allows Customs Agents broad discretion to detain "electronic devices, or copies thereof, for a reasonable period of time to perform a thorough border search." Regardless of your motivation, encrypting mobile data storage should be high on your list of priorities. Like my AmericanExpress card, I never leave home with out it.

Note to attorneys, medical professionals, or anyone with a fiduciary responsibility: Unlike most professionals, you may have a legal, if not ethical, responsibility to protect your clients' data. Even if a standard for "reasonableness" has previously been applied to "locks" and other 20th century security practices, it may not apply to devices removed from a secure space. Check with your respective associations and/or licensing boards for more information.

Hardware vs. Software Encryption

There are two primary means of data encryption on the market today: hardware and software. The primary advantage of the latter is price and wide-scale availability. While software encryption can be used to protect a part or the whole of a storage device, it can also be applied to nearly any storage device attached to almost any operating system--but not necessarily interchangeably. That is to say that the mechanism for encrypting a device attached to one operating system may not be able to be decrypted on another, and vice-versa. That is not universally true, but your mileage may vary, depending on the software utilized. One more significant disadvantage to consider is the possibility of what's commonly referred to as a "man-in-the-middle" attack. Software encryption and decryption are performed on the host-system. That means that a compromised system can be used to intercept your password, disable your encryption, or worse. While the data within a hardware-encrypted drive is still vulnerable to a compromised system, the encryption method should be isolated. The exception being that a hardware-encrypted device that relies on password entry from a computer keyboard may still fall prey to a malicious keylogger, screen capture, or some form of remote access. In either case, two-factor authentication, utilizing a hardware "key" may largely mitigate this concern.

One more recent concern over software encryption involves a practice referred to as a "Cold Boot Attack", which exploits access to the computer's RAM in search for encryption keys, rather than attempting to physically crack the encryption algorithm.

Hardware-encrypted devices, on the other hand, tend to sell at a premium.  They are also not yet widely available. As discussed below, these devices have yet to gain a firm market foothold. This means that your options are severely limited. But, when implemented just right, they can have a clear advantage over software encryption, with a heavy nod toward external authentication mechanisms, such as keypads and biometrics. Many also have the advantage of performing the entire encryption and decryption process internally, without utilizing any host-CPU. Theoretically, this should have a decided speed advantage, compared to software encryption, which is dependent entirely on the computer's processor to continuously encrypt and decrypt data. A disadvantage, however, is that upgrades are usually out of the question, as most hardware encryption devices are uniquely mated to their internal storage. Conversely, software-encrypted drive partition or directory can often be mirrored, or even just copied to a new device. Which also has some clear advantages when it comes to backing up data.

One other interesting advantage to software encryption is plausible deniability. Or, at least, obsfucation. Some software encryption applications will hide encrypted data within, or along side, unencrypted data in a way that makes it look like unused space. Other features allow for hidden encrypted partitions, and even boot-loaders that make a drive appear to be unreadable or un-formatted.


You know the saying, "You get what you paid for"? It doesn't apply to software encryption. Some of the best encryption software available isn't for sale. At the same time, you're welcome to pay decent money for some pretty questionable applications.


I'm just going to start right off with my favorite. TrueCrypt is a free open-source software encryption application for Windows, Mac and Linux. It can encrypt an entire device, just a partition, a directory, or a single file. Decryption can occur after the system has been booted, or you may take advantage of whole-drive pre-boot authentication. Volumes can be hidden with or amongst other data, or an entire operating system can be hidden in the shadow of another, leading a potential intruder to logically assume that the unencrypted operating system is the only operating system. Other features include various models of two-factor authentication, and encryption of removable devices. Encryption can, and in practice does, occur transparently and without user intervention.

Microsoft BitLocker

Similar in some aspects to TrueCrypt, BitLocker is included with all Ultimate and Enterprise editions of Microsoft Windows Vista and 7. It provides for full-volume encryption using 128 bit AES. This feature also offers two-factor schemes to decrease intrusions. Microsoft made an attempt to provide plausible deniability or obfuscation within this software.

Apple FileVault

FileVault encryption comes packaged with Macintosh computers beginning with OS X v10.3 (Panther"). Unlike the products above, FileVault does not encrypt entire volumes, but rather individual directories. Nor have any obfuscation or plausible deniability features been included.


Unfortunately, when it comes to hardware encryption devices, sometimes you can't have the best money can buy, unless you're willing to buy a lot of them. Currently, the biggest drawback to these devices is the lack of selection -- especially when it comes to consumer or small business-oriented devices.



Ironkey is one of the best-known encrypted USB thumb drives on the market. At the time of writing, Ironkeys come in "Basic", "Personal", and "Enterprise" models. According to the manufacturer's web site, currently-sold models inlude a rugged metal tamper-resistant waterproof casing, always-on AES 256-bit hardware encryption, and strong authentication. They are also cross-platform compatible (Windows, 2000, XP, Vista, and 7, with or without administrative privileges, as well as Linux and MacOS). Personal and Enterprise models also include a pre-installed secure Firefox browser, password and identity manager, and encrypted backup application. Enterprise models also include a remote-disable and terminate feature for lost and stolen USB drives, as well as a number of administrative features.


Ennova OLED Biometric Secure Drive

One of the most exciting looking devices is Ennova's fingerprint scanning encrypted USB thumb drive with a color OLED screen. At least from the visual aid, it appears as though the OLED screen serves double-duty as both a touchscreen for manipulating the device, and a biometric fingerprint scanner.

Unfortunately, the device was due out in 2010 and has yet to been seen for sale. Memory size and pricing specifications are unconfirmed as well. In the meantime, I have my biometrics crossed.

Sandisk Cruzer Enterprise

SanDisk Cruzer Enterprise

Another enterprise-bound device, SanDisk's Cruzer Enterprise includes 256-bit hardware-encryption and two-factor RSA SecurID authentication. What this means for the end-user is integration with the ubiquitous RSA token (pictured), providing a level of security already familiar to security-minded corporations, and already in the hands of their employees. This device, however, is not likely to be available on a one-to-one basis, but appears to be marketed in bulk to large organizations.

Lenovo ThinkPad Secure Drive

Thinkpad Secure Drive

About as utilitarian as they come, Lenovo's ThinkPad Secure Drive looks like it could be mounted to a vault. Encryption is 128-bit AES. With a 500-RPM spinning drive, this drive holds more data than most solid-state devices, and much more than a thumb drive. At 160GB, 320GB, and 500GB, you won't likely use it to encrypt your entire Bluray movie collection, but it might make a suitable backup drive for your desktop, compared with most thumb drives topping out at 64GB or less.

The hardware encryption is externally obvious by the keypad. Meaning that, once the correct code has been entered on the physical keypad, this becomes a standard external hard drive. This also means that this product is not subject to software exploits designed to capture keystrokes or disable encryption software. Nor does it require administrative privileges to operate, or any software drivers. This becomes particularly important when using it across platforms, which it should accomplish admirably.

Fujitsu Intelligent ("Self-Destructing") USB Drive

Fujitsu Intelligent USB Drive

Rather than building Fort Knox on a key chain, Fujitsu's Intelligent USB Drive has a built-in processor and battery that, after a pre-set intervention period, will automatically erase data when it’s plugged into an unauthorized computer. Additional enterprise-bound software interacts with the device to restrict which network devices can and cannot access the device, and can even "self-destruct" if an unauthorized attempt is made. Perhaps most intriguing, Fujitsu is reportedly developing something called "File Redirect" which will prevent data from being transferred from the device to any other device, requiring all manipulation to take place on the drive itself. This is a real departure from other devices, by placing an emphasis on securing authorized user-activity, rather than just unauthorized activity, and loss due to theft or carelessness.

Another innovative device, the Intelligent USB Drive has yet to see the light of day, outside Fujitsu's labs. The photo (left) looks real enough. One has to wonder if the self-destruct feature makes getting this product cleared by Fujitsu's legal department a "Mission:Impossible".

Bottom Line

With the exception of Ironkey, most companies appear to be dipping a toe in the water. I haven't seen a solid commitment to a product line, or even a single product, from most other manufacturers. Instead, they appear to be focusing on space-intensive consumer-oriented personal multimedia storage devices. It's unfortunate, because when it comes to purchasing this kind of product, name and reputation often take a backseat to performance and innovation. That means that this product segment could still be anyone's game. Thus far, it appears as though most challengers have already conceded to Ironkey.

In reality, however, the consumer has to shoulder some of the blame. The lack of interest from the consumer in personal data security makes an investment in a product line a questionable investment. Until consumers demonstrate a real interest and concern for data security, or the enterprises make it mandatory, it's likely to remain a niche market.

Other Locking Methods

There's no school like the old school. These devices eschew advanced algorithms, fancy biometrics, and all matters of cloak-and-dagger, for a combination lock. Though I struggle for a humorous take on what appears to be silly in the shadow of vastly superior technology, I really can't find it. So long as the locks hold, these are really no less secure than any other means, probably less complicated to utilize, not subject to any of the traditional attacks or intrusions, and more affordable.

It feels a bit like comparing a Schwinn to a Ferrari. But, there are many places a Schwinn will take you that a Ferrari can't, and you'll never find yourself stranded due to a dead battery.

oo7 USB Flash Drive

007 USB Flash Drive

I'm not a fan of the name, unless it's meant to convey the same thing as calling a bald guy "Curly" or a fat guy "Slim". And, I'd like to think that James Bond's flash drive might be more than, well, a flash drive. But the concept seems solid. A three digit user-"programmable" combination converts the 007 USB Flash Drive from a combo-lock to a thumb drive. Without the digits, it's useless as a storage medium, but sufficient to secure other forms of storage, like a gym locker. But, the added kicker is, even once the numbers are in order, you'll still have to enter another password once you plug it in. (Let's hope that's not the same as the first.)

This one's still a concept, but who knows?

Lock It Down: Combination Lock for USB Flash Drives

Lock It Down

OK, this physical thumb drive lock only serves one purpose. But, it comes in three colors, and it's available now! It also has the added advantage that it works with any thumb drive. But don't attach it to the end of a USB cable, because that would just be dumb.

This one's hard to find, but there are a number of very similar devices available for a few bucks on eBay (and they come in even more colors).

SecurityDr Data Guard USB Thumbdrive Lock

SecurityDr Thumb Drive Lock

The only obvious difference between the SecurityDr and the product above is that it's bigger and comes in no color options. But, it includes a free FTC ID Theft Protection Manual, and it's available at Amazon.com right now. (Note: For what it's worth, you can download the FTC's ID Theft Protection Manual HERE for free.)

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About Jeff M. Fischbach

http://www.twitter.com/FischTech Jeff Michael Fischbach is founder and President of SecondWave Information Systems (SecondWave.com), a consulting firm specializing in Forensic Technology. Since 1994, he has served as a board member and technology adviser to numerous professional organizations and corporations. Mr. Fischbach has been engaged as a litigation consultant and Forensic Examiner, offering expert advice and oversight on matters involving intellectual property, computers, information systems, satellite, tracking and wireless communications technologies. He has advised law enforcement, foreign government representatives, judges, lawyers and the press.
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