USB flash and hard drives and removable media make it easy to carry data around – almost too easy. You can buy 16 GB drives for about $20 these days, and larger ones for not much more.
But with this convenience comes risk. If these items are lost or stolen, someone can have access to your data. Fortunately, some drives offer built-in encryption and free tools like TrueCrypt and Microsoft’s BitLocker To Go can safeguard your data and ensure that no one besides you can read your files. The encryption means that you need to enter a password before you open any of the files on the drive, otherwise all the data is just gibberish.
BitLocker To Go was introduced in Vista, but many users found it too difficult to setup and administer. It is much improved in Windows 7 and in Windows 8. Once you insert your USB drive in your computer, you right-click on the drive and start the BitLocker preparation process. You are asked for a password or a smartcard to protect the drive and where you want to store the recovery key information. It is simple and it just takes a few minutes to perform the encryption, depending on the size of the drive itself.
Note that if you want to read any of the files on your encrypted drive with older versions of Windows such as XP, you can’t.
You should see screens similar to ones the below when you want to decrypt the files on the drive.
Once you set up BitLocker To Go on a drive and a specific computer, you can set things so that it automatically decrypts the drive when it is inserted on that computer, which is a nice touch and makes things very easy to manage.
If you are responsible for your organization’s IT infrastructure and want to enable BitLocker across all the PCs in your company, you might want to review the group policies that are part of Windows here.
If you don’t use Windows, or if you want something more powerful and flexible, then TrueCrypt.org has free open source tools for Mac, Windows, and Linux machines. One of the features that I like is the ability to recover a forgotten password, which is probably the biggest fear in using any of these products. The Windows 7 BitLocker has this recovery feature too. Another feature is that you can encrypt a portion of your hard drive, where BitLocker needs to encrypt the entire drive.
If you want something more powerful than simple password protection, you can link the encryption technology to the Trusted Computing Module chip, (see this video here on TPM) or make use of the built-in fingerprint reader; both are part of most modern Windows laptops.