Pretty much everyone over the age of 15 knows the risks related to unprotected sex, so pretty much everyone takes precautions - including carrying effective protection that fits in a pocket or a purse.
But when it comes to protecting sensitive data, most people still act like they're immune. They leave their digital assets out in plain sight on their desktops and laptops, believing that a computer password is protection enough. Any half-competent hacker or serious identity thief can get it in minutes - maybe seconds.
Reality check: What about your digital files? The ones with your personal financial information? Or your medical records? Maybe some critical company data? Or pictures that you'd have a hard time explaining to your partner? How well are they protected? How would you feel if they suddenly went viral on the Internet?
It could happen quite easily if you lost your laptop (there's one lost or stolen nearly every minute in the U.S.). And what about files on a flash drive? Who hasn't lost one of those?
You get the point. Your data is not safe, but it could be pretty easily. There are dozens of software and hardware encryption solutions on the market. Some are excellent, a lot are adequate, and a few are awful. Here's a rundown on the pros and cons of four pocket- and purse-sized solutions that offer a range of effectiveness, economy, and ease of use:
- Top of the heap is the IronKey Personal S200 solution (www.ironkey.com). Marketed as the world's most secure flash drive, it has a built-in hardware encryption chip to protect your data, which it does really well. But it should for the high price of $80 for 1 gig and $300 for 16 gigs as of writing. On the downside, it's also much bigger than most USB flash drives and wouldn't fit on a key ring, and after 10 incorrect passwords, it fries the USB memory (you lose all your data).
- At the other end of the spectrum is TrueCrypt (www.truecrypt.org). Pluses: It's free, open source and can encrypt your whole hard drive (that can be good or bad). Minuses: You have to do more than a little setup and formatting and the feature that makes it portable appears to be Windows only, which means that you will need to have TrueCrypt installed to use your secure volume on a Linux or OS X (i.e. Mac) machine. Also, the account that you use TrueCrypt on must be administrator level, which could make it hard to use a TrueCrypt protected USB on a library terminal or corporate computer. And because the encrypted volume resides as a container file on the unencrypted portion of the USB key, if someone got access to your drive without your knowing it, or if it were lost, they could copy off this file and subject it to brute-force password guessing methods. Free, yes, but at a price.
- The two other solutions reviewed, SafeHouse (www.safehousesoftware.com) and Encrypt Stick (www.encryptstick.com), both give you a lot for relatively little. Both are very easy-to-use software solutions, both are fully portable, and both have free trial versions.
- SafeHouse, a Windows only solution, makes you buy the more expensive upgrade (SafeHouse Professional at $59.95) to get the full strength 448-bit encryption. Encrypt Stick encrypts Windows and OS X on the same flash drive for one price. On the SafeHouse Explorer (their free version) and Personal ($29.95) you get only 256-bit encryption. This is nice, but a weaker offer than Encrypt Stick's 512-bit polymorphic encryption, even on the free version. Among other extras, Encrypt Stick's full version gives you an unlimited number of encrypted vaults (or protected folders), unlimited encrypted flash drive storage space, and a user definable timeout feature.
Three other Encrypt Stick features I liked:
- If you lose your flash drive you can access encrypted files on your PC or Mac through a new license via their website.
- You only have to remember one password because a built-in Password Manager not only stores passwords, but can also automatically generate strong passwords.
- You get a virtual keyboard that totally prevents keylogging.
OK, you've got enough data to make a decision. You could have all the protection you need if you got an encryption solution in the next 15 minutes. Or would you rather wait until you see your private pictures on the Internet or the bank calls you to ask if you've been shopping in Hong Kong?
Patrick Cotter is a Vancouver, BC-based freelance tech writer who specializes in reporting on new and innovative technology.