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Encrypted USB Flash Drives: What Are They, and How Do They Work?

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The purpose of encrypted USB flash drives is to ensure a secure transfer of data.

With the increase of cloud computing, USB flash drives don't play as large a role in data sharing as they did a few years ago.

However, cloud computing leaves your data more susceptible to breaches, making USB flash drives a vital tool for sharing, accessing or transporting data safely. Because these flash drives hold sensitive corporate or customer data, a lost or stolen drive quickly becomes a data breach and a privacy violation nightmare. If your employees use flash drives, you'll want to use encrypted USB flash drives, like the SecureDrive SecureUSB KP ($89), for an added layer of security.

SecureDrive SecureUSB KP

USB software vs. hardware

There are two types of encrypted USB flash drives: hardware encryption and software encryption. Both require authentication like a key, password or biometric solution to access the data stored on the drive, but they each have their own unique characteristics.

Software encryption is the cheaper of the two options. The drive's encryption relies on software that comes either from security software downloaded onto the host computer or through software included with the computer's operating system (BitLocker is used by Windows). The encryption key is usually just a password. However, the security of the encryption relies on the security of the computer.

The software sometimes needs patches or updates; if that's not done, the software is vulnerable to hackers. It's also prone to error and requires that users follow precise steps for the encryption to work. Also, you may be limited to use on certain computers that have the encryption software making it difficult to transfer data to and from any device. Software encryption is better than no encryption, but for anyone using a flash drive for very sensitive data, it should be used as a fallback option.

With hardware encryption, a dedicated chip within the drive handles the encryption for data stored on the drive's memory. The data remains encrypted until the user enters the passcode or other form of authentication (there are also biometric options where a fingerprint is used for authentication and wireless options where you authenticate via mobile device).

Encrypted USB flash drive trade-offs

You can't plug in an encrypted USB flash drive and expect it to automatically open files on the computer. Hardware and software encryption types both need to be authenticated. If you don't remember the password or key, you won't be able to access the data.

Encryption is processor intensive. That means reading and writing will be slower than for an unencrypted drive. This shouldn't be an issue, but some users may think there is a problem because the encrypted flash drive chugs along a little slower than expected.

Encrypted USB flash drive security

The purpose behind encrypted USB flash drives is to ensure a secure transfer of data. The encrypted drive can also protect against certain types of attacks, like cold boot attacks or malware. But no device is 100% secure.

While the best flash drives bill themselves as tamper-proof, it is still possible for the device to be opened and the chip removed or damaged so the device no longer encrypts data. The SecureDrive line of products counteracts this by covering the important components in a hard epoxy coating. The encryption itself could present a problem if the standard is out of date or weak. The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is the one used by the U.S. government and one of the most trusted for these devices.

Keeping data secure is more important than ever, with data privacy regulations becoming standard globally. If you must use a USB flash drive to transmit or store data, a hardware-encrypted system is your safest – and easiest – option.

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