After recently misplacing a USB drive (luckily already encrypted), I decided to put together a quick guide for anyone interested in securing their data on USB/Local drives through encryption, using free tools available for download.
These days everyone stores huge amounts of data on USB drives (be it small pen drives or larger hard drives reaching 1TB or more). We carry this information around in our pockets everywhere, sharing with co-workers and friends, at our clients and perhaps even in public locations.
The main question you should ask yourself from a security standpoint is "What stops somebody from connecting to your drive and viewing/stealing/destroying your data?
Remember the old DOS command format L:\ /q (this one quickly deletes Gigabytes of data in seconds - of course we could use tools to recover at the expense of your administrators time and nerves..).
Ever since the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft has provided us with a powerful security feature known as BitLocker, which can securely encrypt any drive. BitLocker ensures authorised access by asking for a password upon connection of the drive to a Windows OS based PC. It even works for those using Windows 7 on Mac-PCs.
BitLocker to Go - new on Windows 7
Before Windows 7, BitLocker encryption could have been used only on hard-drives installed physically on the computer. Now, anyone running Ultimate or Enterprise editions of Windows 7 can use the BitLocker ToGo extension to protect and secure even smaller USB pen drives, directly from the contextual menu in Windows Explorer (as depicted in the next screenshot). The wizard will drive you through all the steps and ask you to choose a password to access/modify data on your disk, ending with the launch of the encryption process. The duration of the encryption process will depend on the size and type of your drive. The next screenshot shows an example of how an encrypted drive is visible in Windows Explorer. Note: if you no longer require BitLocker, you can simply turn off the encryption to revert your drive and its data to its original state, via Control Panel.
Introducing TrueCrypt on the fly multi-platform encryption
What if Im not running Windows? Are there any cross-OS alternatives? BitLocker, at least for now, only works with Windows 7/Vista based PCs. The good news is that TrueCrypt (version available at the time of publishing is 7.1) is a non-commercial free tool providing on-the-fly encryption for Windows 7/Vista/XP, Mac OS X and Linux (see the links below to download).
This tool has tremendous capabilities, as it can encrypt USB drives, drives running your Windows OS and Virtual Drives all while benefiting from the hardware-acceleration on your PC to speed up the process. Installation is straightforward, and the process of disk encryption is accompanied by wizards which makes it easy to create encrypted drives or encrypt existing data. It is strongly suggested for first-timers to look at the quick tutorial available here.
BitLocker encryption extension on Microsoft Windows 7 site
TrueCrypt free open-source on-the-fly disk encryption software for Windows 7/Vista/XP, Mac Os X, and Linux