USB thumb drives are appearing with higher and higher storage capacities, and as such they have become the preferred tools for offline and portable data storage. The small form factor and portability also means pen drives are quite easily lost, and so the data stored on them might land in the wrong hands and end up used for malicious purposes.
This doesn't mean that you need to go through all the hassle of password protecting the whole drive. In most cases there are only a handful of documents that need securing but there will be some situations where the whole USB drive needs to be protected.
Whatever the case may be, it’s highly recommend to take steps to protect your data, and here are some ways of doing that.
1. Protect the USB Drive With a Password
Your smartphone is a portable storage device just like a USB stick and it is passcode or pattern protected; why wouldn't you do the same with a device used specifically for storing data offline? The good news for Windows users is that they can skip paying for extra software by using a lesser known technology called BitLocker. Included in the operating system ever since Windows 7, BitLocker enables both password protection and encryption on portable storage devices.
Users running older versions of Windows or other operating systems can opt for paid software that provides full USB drive encryption, while some even provide the option to create a hidden partition on the drive – such as Rohos Mini Drive or Rohos Disk Encryption and the like.
2. Password Protect Sensitive Documents
While protecting the whole drive makes sense in some certain situations, protecting individual files with a password is useful for safeguarding specific data within files. This has two major advantages: first, that it takes only a fraction of the full disk encryption time, and secondly many programs have this feature built-in – Microsoft Office or Adobe apps, for example. Of course, keeping these files safe also means you should assign a unique and cryptographically secure password to every document. This is possible either by using your own password recipe or – the more convenient method – via a password manager.
3. Use Flash Drive Reminder
How many times have you left your pen drive behind in a computer different to your own? If you leave it in your best friend's machine that's not necessarily a problem, but how about if it is left in a publicly used computer? To address that, there is a simple trick: use Flash Drive Reminder, a tiny piece of software running in the background on the flash drive that reminds you to unplug it every time your session ends. Flash Drive Reminder is a free utility and runs only on Windows.
4. Use Fully Encrypted USB Drives
Instead of spending time and nerves on encrypting the pen drive manually, why not buy one that is encrypted by default? Kingston's IronKey S1000 comes with 256-bit AES hardware-based encryption, an XTS mode, and FIPS 140-2 Level 3 validation with on-device Cryptochip Encryption Key management. But the fact is that they are pricey (starting at $110 for a 4GB drive), but it may be a worthwhile investment.
5. Protect the Drive in a Safe Place
The design of the majority of flash drives allows them to be attached to a keychain, a place that seems to be the safest place to store it – especially if it has a location tracker attached to it. However, it is worth mentioning that in most cases a keychain-attached USB drive is going to attract the most attention if lost – let's say – in a parking lot. Research by Google's security team lead by Elie Bursztein has found that 48% of people do in fact plug in USB drives that they find in parking lots.
Other Purpose USB keys
Used particularly by security-savvy internet users that are concerned about password theft, phishing, or other scams, FIDO U2F security keys are essentially USB drives. Some password managers, such as LastPass, have integrated this second factor into authentication, an additional layer of security made by Yubico. This security key, called YubiKey, requires no power source only a USB port, and if enabled with a LastPass account the drive emits a one-time password that completes the login process of the user.
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