Q. Could you suggest a simple program to encrypt an entire flash drive? - Richard
A. For all intents and purposes, today’s USB flash memory drives (a.k.a. thumb drives or jump drives) are the equivalent to the old school floppy disk on steroids. If you want to transfer files from one computer to another or take a presentation from home to work or school, a flash drive is the ticket.
An average-size drive these days (1Gb) holds more data than a CD and can be the equivalent of almost 700 of the old school floppy disks in a form factor that is smaller than a pack of gum. It’s more convenient and flexible than burning CDs, it can be used as a backup system and works with any computer that has a USB port.
The portability of the flash drive is also one of the hazards of storing files on it; they can be very easy to lose! Encrypting the files on the drive, which essentially scrambles the data and requires a key or password to unscramble it, makes good sense just in case it ever falls into the hands of an unauthorized user.
Often times you will see folks with flash drives on their key chains or on a lanyard around their neck to help keep from losing these tiny wonders of technology - which is a good idea for everyone. If you’ve ever lost a flash drive that had important personal data on it, you know exactly why Richard is asking this question. If you have not yet experienced that “rock in your stomach,” then you may want to take the same measures to minimize your exposure in the event you ever do lose your flash drive.
The first option is to buy a special flash drive that has security built into the unit. Some companies use software security, while others are incorporating Biometric interfaces (fingerprint scans) for keeping unauthorized eyes from viewing the contents.
If you already own a flash drive and have Windows XP Professional or Vista Ultimate, you can use the encryption built into the operating system. But that means you can only view this data on a similar system. It won’t be accessible from Windows XP Home, Windows ME, 98, Linux, MacOS or any other system that does not support the same encryption protocol.
This approach could be good for those who only use Window XP Professional or Vista Ultimate systems in their lives but not so good for those who need to interface with many different operating systems.
Another “old school” approach is to compress the files before placing them on the flash drive and use a program that will require a password to uncompress the files. WinZip (www.winzip.com) is one of the long-standing compression utilities that can secure the “zipped” file so only those with the password can view the enclosed files.
There are also several third-party encryption programs that can be added to your computer to secure your USB flash drive. Many of them are free, but they have very basic instructions and tend to be written for the more technical user.
TrueCrypt is a free open source solution (www.truecrypt.org) that can encrypt data on any storage device (hard drive or flash drive) and can create normal or hidden volumes for additional security. It is fairly easy to install, setup and use but it can get a little techie for the novice.
Encryption does have it’s downsides that you must be ready to accept. If you lose your password/encryption key or the encryption program corrupts the information, getting the data back can be very difficult if not impossible.
Also, if an encrypted device ever “crashes” and you need to attempt data recovery, it becomes much more difficult (and potentially expensive) because of the added complexity of the scrambled data.
If you choose to use encryption, keep a copy of your password/access code in a safety deposit box or in another secure real world storage area. Don’t keep an electronic copy on your computer!
Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the “Computer Corner” radio show, which can be heard at www.datadoctors.com/radio. Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org