Thursday, February 23, 2012

Password-Protect Your USB Drive In 2 Easy Steps


Today I learned something new - how to password-protect a USB flash drive without using any software/installations, or coding stuff (and it's free of course). As long as your PC runs on the Ultimate or Enterprise editions of Microsoft's Windows Vista or Windows 7 desktop operating systems (as well as on Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2008 R2 server platforms), password-protecting your thumb drive is no rocket science.

This article was originally posted on my now-gone blog (ImageBurner) on February 23, 2012.  

The process is called BitLocker Drive Encryption - a drive encryption security feature introduced by Microsoft but ONLY comes with the aforementioned operating systems. Simply said, it provides protection against data theft or exposure on computers (drives, specifically) in case they get lost or stolen, or to avoid unauthorized alteration or deletion of data (see FAQ here).

It's been more than a year since I bought my laptop (runs on Windows 7 Ultimate) and it actually came as a surprise to me that the operating system includes this security component. The specific feature that we are going to make use of is BitLocker To Go since were performing the drive encryption procedure on a removable drive.

Before diving in, here's what you need you need to know about BitLocker To Go:
  • BitLocker To Go only works on the abovementioned operating systems.
  • If you plan to use BitLocker To Go on a flash drive that you'll also be using on other machines running on lower (legacy e.g. XP) Windows operating systems than those mentioned above, there are some requirements that needs to be met and limitations (e.g. READ-ONLY capabilities) as well. For more info, follow this link.
  • BitLocker Drive Encryption is NOT a cross-platform feature. That being said, BitLocker encrypted thumb drives can't be read nor accessed by any other machine (e.g. those running on Mac OS X, Linux, etc.) except those that runs on a Windows OS.
  • The USB thumb drive that you'll be using should already be formatted in FAT32. Note that if your PC is formatted with NTFS then you won't have the option to reformat a removable drive from NTFS to FAT32 and you can't you use the 'convert' DOS command either. If it is formatted in NTFS and your PC runs on FAT32 (or if you're just really not sure) try right-clicking on the selected flash drive volume and select "Format..." from the pop-up menu. On the window that pops up similar to what is shown below, click on the drop-down menu under "File system" and see if you have the option to reformat it into FAT32. Please take note that reformatting a drive volume ERASES ALL DATA inside it so it's always advisable to make a backup of everything in there before going on with the process.

    Make sure to UNCHECK the Quick Format option before clicking the Start button.
    Make sure to UNCHECK the "Quick Format" option before clicking the "Start" button. 
  • As I said earlier, the process is pretty much straightforward. Just follow the following instructions carefully (that's how I did with mine) and everything should be fine. 

To start off, here's what you need:

  • The USB flash drive (thumb drive, or whatever names the world came up with it) that you're going to password-protect;
  • A computer that runs on Ultimate or Enterprise editions of Microsoft's Windows Vista or Windows 7 desktop operating systems, as well as on Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2008 R2 server platforms; 

As promised, here are the 2 EASY STEPS:

1.) Open Computer (it used to be My Computer with the older operating systems), right-click on the drive volume that you are going to use BitLocker on and select "Turn on BitLocker...".

Just to show you what to expect with a non-encrypted drive, you'll observe that the selected drive's BitLocker status is OFF; it's File system format is FAT32.
Just to show you what to expect with a non-encrypted flash drive, you'll observe that the selected drive's BitLocker status is OFF; it's File system format is FAT32. 

2.) A pop-up window will appear. Tick the "Use a password to unlock the drive" option, key in your password and leave everything else unchecked (you'll be able to tweak these options after the process).

Click Next when you're done.
Click "Next" when you're done. 

...and that's it! Now you'll just have to...

Wait for the drive encryption process to finish (this may take a while). Take note of the precaution.
Wait for the thumb drive encryption process to finish (this may take a while). Take note of the precaution.

After the completed drive encryption, notice that the drive's BitLocker Status is now ON and you'll see an unlocked padlock over the volume's icon which indicates that it is accessible as we haven't tried re-plugging the thumb drive yet.
After the completed drive encryption, notice that the drive's BitLocker Status is now ON  and you'll see an unlocked  padlock over the volume's icon which indicates that it is accessible as we haven't tried re-plugging the thumb drive yet. 

The next time you plug in your encrypted USB flash drive, you'll be prompted with this window that asks for your password to unlock the drive. As I mentioned earlier, you'll also have the option to automatically unlock it on the computer you are on so that you won't be asked of the password again every time you use your encrypted thumb drive.
The next time you plug in your encrypted thumb drive, you'll be prompted with this window that asks for your password to unlock the drive. As I mentioned earlier, you'll also have the option to automatically unlock it on the computer you are on so that you won't be asked of the password again every time you use your encrypted USB flash drive. 

Going back to Computer (My Computer) and right-clicking on the encrypted USB flash drive will present you with an option to manage your BitLocker drive encryption preferences.
Going back to Computer (My Computer) and right-clicking on the encrypted flash drive will present you with an option to manage your BitLocker drive encryption preferences. Note that you can also perform hard disk encryption using BitLocker. You can password-protect external hard drives as well. 

You are now ready to go reckless, forget and leave your password-protected USB drive anywhere you wish to. Seriously, it's ultimately up to us to take good care of our stuff. Once your thumb drive gets lost, the pRoN library data inside it is forever gone as well. Simple logic.

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