Secure flash drives keep you safe on the road

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

In a Sept. 24 Top Story, I described how to evade keyloggers when using a public PC by storing your personal information on a flash drive.

If you don’t mind paying a little extra to maintain your privacy and security, a specialized flash drive called IronKey can help you stay safe while using an untrustworthy computer.

Anyone concerned about security — and that’s just about everybody — should consider using a flash drive to transport sign-in info and other personal data when traveling. Following my story on thwarting keyloggers, several readers suggested the IronKey flash drive as an even-stronger security measure.

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Billing the device as the “world’s most secure flash drive,” the company claims IronKeys are waterproof, tamperproof, and able to endure extreme physical conditions.

Beyond the sheer ruggedness of its devices, each of which is encased in metal, the firm takes multiple approaches to securing your data. The first time you use an IronKey device, the product prompts you to create a master password and set up an account on the IronKey.com site. As part of the sign-up process, you’re asked to provide answers to personal questions that can be used to identify you if you forget your password.

You can also select images and provide a passphrase to help you authenticate e-mail sent to you by IronKey and thus avoid being fooled by a phishing mail. After you complete these steps, the product goes through its authentication routine and then is ready to use.

Hardened flash drive is one tough nut to crack

The first time you use your IronKey flash drive, you need to enter the master password to do pretty much anything. If you forget or lose the password, you can sign in to the IronKey site to retrieve it. If you lose the drive itself, you can report it lost so that no one else can sign in to your account.

The setup routine creates an IronKey icon in the notification area of the Windows taskbar. When you click this icon, you’re presented with a main menu and control panel. In this way, IronKey is similar to U3 flash drives and portable application suites such as winPenPack. (See my Oct. 18, 2007, Top Story for more on portable apps and U3 drives.) You can customize the IronKey menu by adding shortcuts to any other portable apps you install to the drive.

IronKey’s identity manager lets you store user names and passwords for the sites you frequent, so you can sign in with a simple point-and-click. Because the IronKey device provides your password directly to any secure sites you visit, keyloggers see no keystrokes to capture.

IronKey preinstalls a version of Firefox on the drive, which means no cached or temporary files are left on the computer you’re using. If, for some reason, you can’t or won’t use Firefox, not to worry. You can choose instead to open an Internet Explorer window while the IronKey drive is in place. The device inserts an icon onto IE’s title bar to give you access to IronKey’s menu choices.

These are only a few of IronKey’s many security features. Others of note include the following:
  • You can store your work files in a folder protected with military-grade hardware encryption. IronKey will mount this folder as a drive, but only if you enter the master password.

  • The device’s self-destruct feature obliterates your stored data if someone enters the password incorrectly ten times or tampers with the device.

  • The drive’s built-in backup utility saves data securely to a folder on your computer.
Not surprisingly, all these precautions don’t come cheap. IronKey’s personal version costs $99 for a 2GB drive and $149 for the 4GB model. The 8GB and 16GB drives will set you back $199 and $299, respectively. But the device might be a bargain for people who need to take their most-sensitive data and sign-in information on the road. If that describes you, an IronKey is one of the safest ways to go.

You’ll find more information about the product on the IronKey site.

Create your own secure, bootable flash drive

If you don’t want to shell out for an IronKey, you can still use a flash drive for added security when you have no choice but to use a shared computer. One strategy is to load an entire operating system onto a flash drive and then boot from it rather than the PC’s hard drive.

Be aware, however, that many Internet cafés won’t let you boot their computers using a flash drive. Even if you can boot a public PC from a flash drive, doing so is unlikely to evade hardware keyloggers.

Still, you may find booting from a flash drive useful in some cases. In my Mar. 20, 2008, Top Story, I discussed how to install a version of Linux on a flash drive . If you’d prefer to load Windows XP onto a flash drive, instructions are provided in WS contributing editor Mark Edwards’s Mar. 27, 2008, PC Tune-Up column on the subject.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and occasionally writes for the Here’s How section of that magazine.
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