Should I Encrypt My External Hard Drive?

Category: Hard-Drives

I'm a legal consultant who travels with an external hard drive, and it stores a lot of sensitive data. I'm very careful about physical security, but still I'm thinking about using encryption to secure my data, just in case. What do you recommend?

External Hard Drive Encryption

If you store sensitive data on an external hard drive, you should consider encrypting the drive to prevent unauthorized access. External drives, particularly those that are moved from place to place, are more vulnerable to loss or theft than internal drives. There are many strategies and products for encrypting external hard drives.

Encryption software is the simplest way to encrypt an external drive. Windows 7 Enterprise and Ultimate editions come with BitLocker encryption built in. BitLocker encrypts and decrypts data on the fly. A BitLocker-protected external drive is automatically recognized by Windows 7 and either opens automatically or prompts the user for a password, depending on how BitLocker is configured.

Microsoft also offers BitLocker to Go Reader, a utility for Vista and XP systems that provides read-only access to drives encrypted with BitLocker. BitLocker to Go Reader lets Windows 7 systems share data with Vista and XP users but does not allow Vista and XP users to write data to BitLocker-protected drives.
Hard Drive Encryption

Truecrypt is a popular free encryption program that works a bit differently from BitLocker. TrueCrypt creates an encrypted file on the target drive, which can be an external drive, flash drive, or network drive. Data written to the encrypted file is protected. The encrypted file can then be mounted as an extra drive letter and accessed just like a normal drive. The TrueCrypt software must be installed on an external drive. Truecrypt works with Windows, Mac, and Linux systems.

SafeHouse Explorer is another free encryption program that runs on Windows 7, Vista, and XP. Unlike Truecrypt, SafeHouse Explorer does not need to be installed. It can be run as a standalone executable file from a USB flash drive, an external hard drive, a CD/DVD, or even over the Internet.

Software or Hardware Encryption?

When working with an encrypted hard drive, you probably won't notice much difference in performance, unless you routinely deal with very large files or SQL databases. But software-based encryption will definitely rev up your CPU, so be prepared to take a hit on battery life if you're using a laptop.

Hardware encryption is faster and more secure than software encryption. The encryption algorithms are burned into circuitry embedded in a chip inside of the drive, safe from manipulation by hackers. The encryption chip handles all processing, freeing the computer's resources.

Some hardware encryption drives include a physical key device that must be inserted into the drive to unlock its contents. Others have fingerprint scanners built into the drive's case. Still others have a keypad on which a PIN of up to 18 digits must be entered in order to unlock a drive.

For most consumers, a free software encryption program provides adequate protection. Business users who must protect many external drives, comply with data security regulations, and share external drives among numerous employees may be better served by hardware encryption drives.

Do you use hard drive encryption? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Should I Encrypt My External Hard Drive?"

Posted by:

23 Jun 2011

I keep all my sensitive data on a 4 gig SD card in encrypted form. Before i leave on a trip, i back up my latptop and the SD card to an encrypted external drive that i leave in a fireproof safe at home. While i am traveling, i keep the SD card in my pocket (or, out of the laptop). That way, if my laptop is stolen or if i leave it at the airport (as happens to many people), i don't have to worry about someone finding any sensitive data on the laptop.

Posted by:

23 Jun 2011

I once tried the paid version of SafeHouse Explorer but deleted the program as I was not satisfied with the owner's response when I asked him if the SH-Explorer program had a "backdoor".
(I had e-mailed him the question)

The gentleman's response was brief and tepid at best - - not too reassuring.

Anyway, The TrueCrypt encryption software is the best I have used to date - - using state-of-the-art encryption methods (The folks there also provide new versions when needed).
I have used TC for several years now and I am VERY satisfied with the product - - and Best of all - - It's FREE and pretty easy to set up!

Posted by:

Y. Meizel
24 Jun 2011

Truecrypt can run in portable mode: see

Also, it can be used to encrypt an entire external drive.

Anybody storing sensitive data on a laptop should consider full disk encryption. Even if keeping data on a secure device, who knows where Windows might write sensitive data while processing.

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