I have been turning my USB thumb drives into fully encrypted data containers for years now, but readily admit that the prospect of rolling up your sleeves and getting down and dirty with encryption software is not as exciting to everyone as it is to me. However, with removable USB data storage devices having hit the pricing point where they have well and truly become commoditized and the data stored upon them of increasing value to those who would cause you financial injury, it really isn't safe to carry data around unencrypted; so what to do if DIY encryption isn't your cup of tea? That's where the growing range of 'secure USB thumb drives' enter the equation, with all the tricky stuff already installed and configured. All that the user has to do is enter a master password and anything stored on the device gets encrypted. I've been taking a look at one such device, the Kingston DataTraveler Vault Privacy USB (8GB) thumb drive, for DaniWeb.
The big question that people will ask is whether this thumb drive is worth paying £30 for at Amazon when the retailer is selling other hardware encrypted 8GB devices for less than a third of that (including older USB 2.0 models from Kingston) and unprotected drives for less than £3? The price dividend in this case is courtesy of a combination of factors, including the fact that this is a USB 3.0 device of course. You are also paying for the added data protection peace of mind that comes about thanks to a working partnership between Kingston Technology, ESET and ClevX. This not only brings hardware-based 256-bit AES encryption to the thumb drive party (nothing particularly unique about that, truth be told) but also ESET anti-malware and NOD32 anti-virus protection via the Windows-based ClevX DriveSecurity platform which monitors all drive activity.
The big selling point, then, is the ease of use. It's this that you are paying for, given that you could buy a cheaper drive and install your own (software-based) encryption software to turn it into an encrypted data container with the added benefit of plausible deniability if you select the right applications and configure them in the right way. With the Vault Privacy drive, when you plug it in (after the initial setup) it will prompt you for a password to continue. This simple act, at the same time as protecting your data, reveals that you have encrypted data being protected. Law enforcement and/or the courts could (in certain jurisdictions) demand you hand over your keys to that data or face the legal consequences of refusing. In the UK the consequences include prison time. However, I digress, it's this ease of use along with the levels of data protection on offer that people are paying for here. And ease of use includes setting the drive up; plug it in, a setup utility kicks in and walks you through formatting the encrypted part of the drive and choosing a master password. This all works well across Linux, Mac and Windows platforms. Windows users also get the DriveSecurity stuff with anti-virus protection via an ESET NOD32 av engine which requires no installation, comes with a five year pre-paid license and provides protection against viruses, malware, rootkits etc. The DriveSecurity platform which manages the AV protection is pre-installed locally on the drive, attempts to update the ESET signature database every hour, and just does what it is meant to do. And that's about it, when you plug the drive in now it will ask for a password to continue. Eventually. This was my biggest bug-bear with the product, as it could take anything from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes before the drive was recognised and I was able to use it. Which may not sound much in the overall scheme of things, but when you are in a hurry it feels like forever. It's not the fastest drive on the planet in USB 3.0 data transfer rates either, I measured it out at an average of about 30MB/s for a sequential read and 12MB/s for a sequential write. Things were much worse when it came to random write performance though, averaging out at just 4.5K. Of course, this trade-off between usability and security is something that we all have to consider and the Vault Privacy drive is no different. Oh, get your password wrong after whatever number of attempts you have configured it to allow and you can wave goodbye to your data as it will simply lock down, and then reformat...
It's not the smallest thumb drive in my collection, and truth be told it rather harks back to the bad old days of 'pocket snaggers' in that it's a whopping 3.06" x 0.9" x 0.47" (77.9 mm x 22.2 mm x 12.05 mm) in size. Compared to the smooth metal svelteness of the DataTraveler SE9, for example, which measures in at a miniscule 1.535" x 0.486" x 0.179" (39.00mm x 12.35mm x 4.55mm) the Vault Privacy device is truly gargantuan. It's a well built thing though, with a aluminium case that is water resistant and feels like it will survive a decent amount of punishment. The weak spot, as always with this kind of stick design, is the connector cover. It doesn't fit with a push and click, and my concern is that it will be easily lost and then the connector becomes exposed to potential damage in pocket. However, while we are on the comparisons with the SE9, the Vault Privacy model is a USB 3.0 device with all the data transfer rate benefits that brings over the USB 2.0 SE9. It's bigger, yes, but it's much quicker as well. Talking of size, thanks to the way that the hardware encryption works, this drive also requires two free drive letters in order to use it. As you would expect for a portable storage device, the OS compatibility list is decent enough (Windows 8.1, Windows 8, Windows 7 (SP1), Vista® (SP2), XP (SP3), Mac OS X 10.6.x–10.9.x, Linux v2.6.x+7) however, because this stick is not compatible with Mac OS or Linux if you expect to be able to make use of the anti-virus functionality you are paying for. That's something worth noting, and is pretty much a deal-breaker for non-Windows users if you ask me.
So to sum up: experienced coders will probably be happier encrypting their own drives for less and getting things running exactly as they want. For everyone else, the Vault Privacy option provides data security peace of mind out of the box for Windows users, albeit at something of a premium when it comes to price.