Protecting data on portable drives

Carrying around a terabyte or more of data in your pocket requires some extra precautions to protect the data on the drive.

It is almost mind-boggling how much data can be stored on a portable drive or USB thumb drive. As convenient as it is it to be able to carry 1TB of data in your pocket, though, portable drives are also easily lost or stolen, and gallivanting about can take its toll on the data. It is important to protect the portable drives and the data they contain.

For mobile workers, smaller PC form factors such as netbooks provide lighter weight and longer battery life, but generally have smaller hard drives than desktops or larger laptops. Cloud storage solutions such as Box.net and Syncplicity offer a means of storing data for easy access, but that access relies on being connected to the Web, and comes with potential security concerns of trusting sensitive data to be stored on the Internet by a third-party.

The other solution is to use a portable USB hard drive. Drives like the Seagate GoFlex or the Western Digital My Passport let you carry as much as 1.5TB of data in a device the size of a wallet, and easily access the data by connecting it to virtually any USB-enabled platform. But, how do you safeguard such vast quantities of data on small, portable drives?

What If the Data is Corrupted or Drive Fails?

For starters -- buy two. Seriously. A 1.5TB Seagate GoFlex drive retails for under $200, and the 1TB Western Digital My Passport is about $120. It seems safe to assume that if you have a terabyte of data -- regardless of whether it is a bunch of music files, a collection of YouTube videos, or top secret military designs for a next-generation fighter jet -- it probably has value to you. To guard against a simple drive failure or corrupt data, you should back up the data periodically -- like once a week or so. I expect that it is worth the additional $120 to back up and protect the data stored on the first $120 drive.

What If My Laptop Bag Gets Shot with a 12-Guage?

Or, what if I drop my portable drive into a bath tub or swimming pool? Or, what if I accidentally set my laptop bag down in a construction zone and a bulldozer drives over it? All very good questions. Lacie makes a rugged portable drive with a rubber bumper that allows it withstand the shock of dropping from a height of more than 7 feet, but it offers little protection against water or firearms. The ioSafe Rugged Portable drive unveiled at CES 2011 is capable of protecting data from virtually any potential physical destruction.

What If My Drive is Lost or Stolen?

This is arguably the biggest concern. Portable drives -- by virtue of being small and light for portability -- are easily lost or stolen. Where a drive failure, or drive destruction would be a catastrophe on one level, at least the data is inaccessible. If a drive is lost or stolen, however, the potential exists that its new owner will access and compromise the data it contains.

Data on a portable drive should be encrypted so that even if it falls into unauthorized hands the data it contains would be mere gibberish and a lost or stolen drive would not result in exposure of sensitive or confidential information. There are software-based options like Microsoft's BitLocker To Go (assuming you have a compatible version of Windows) that can encrypt data stored on portable drives, or you can purchase a drive like the Apricorn Aegis Padlock that provides hardware-based encryption requiring a valid PIN to access.

Really, you should use all of the above. You need to encrypt the data to guard against unauthorized access and compromise, but also protect the drive against physical damage, and back up the data to ensure it isn't lost in a drive failure.

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Tags applicationsstoragesecurityexternal hard driveportable hard driveusb storagesoftwaredata protectionwestern digital

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)
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