At $30, the CipherUSB is a unquestioned recommendation for anyone worried about keeping their sensitive data safe.
by Craig Mathias
Information security has traditionally been a complex topic - and doubly so when mobility comes into play. For example, while there are millions of USB storage devices - from flash memory sticks to hard drives - in use on the go today, it's a safe bet that very few of these are protected against unauthorized access. This can be a huge problem; it's likely that many if not most of these devices contain sensitive or confidential information - data that could be of value to professional information thieves. A lost or stolen USB drive today has little intrinsic economic value, but the data on it can literally be priceless.
So while there is therefore significant motivation to encrypt these drives, the complexity and cost usually involved here have served as a deterrent to taking even simple steps towards data protection. Some operating systems have built-in data encryption, but these are usually specific to a given OS and performance often takes a big hit if this is enabled.
What's more, most users simply don't have the technical skills or inclination to pursue device encryption with the degree of dedication required to provide real protection; they're looking for simplicity and transparency first and foremost.
The new Cipher USB (model CA256USB) from Addonics achieves these goals. CipherUSB is packaged like a USB memory key, and is that small. It has a USB plug at one end, and a jack at the other. In operation, the jack is plugged into a PC or other device, and the storage device is plugged into the Cipher USB. Cipher USB requires no drivers, batteries or ongoing interaction - there's a one-time setup procedure involving a Password Utility (versions are available for both Windows and OS X) during which a password of up to 32 case-sensitive characters is entered, but that's it. In operation, all one needs to do is plug any given storage device into the CipherUSB, and the CipherUSB into a computer.
And voil?: nothing else to do or remember; device encryption couldn't be easier. Note also that everything on the target drive is encrypted, including boot records. It's recommended that the target device be formatted and perhaps erased immediately before starting use with CipherUSB just to make sure that no unencrypted sensitive data is left on the drive. While an OS wouldn't be able to see this data, specialized software like sector editors might have access. All newly written data, however, is encrypted.
That encryption, by the way, is based on 256-bit AES, which is very secure indeed. And the device is also compatible with writable optical media as well, meaning that users can share the CipherUSB among numerous computers and storage devices, improving both utility and value. And, if one desires even more security, multiple CipherUSBs can be cascaded; for example, four CipherUSBs attached end-to-end would provide what is in effect a 1024-bit key. While we didn't try multiple units in this fashion, we noticed little if any performance degradation using the device, and 256-bit keys should be more than adequate for most applications.
Well, then, is there a downside? Only one that we noticed: do not store the CipherUSB and a target drive depending upon it together! A thief will find the use of CipherUSB just as convenient as authorized users do. And, of course, don't forget the password, as there's no way to recover this, and the target drive's contents will be toast in that case. But this proviso applies to essentially all data encryption technologies, and with obvious good reason.
If you do lose your CipherUSB, don't fret! You can pick up a new unit from Addonics, and program it with your password; all of your data will be accessible once more.
So, how much does all this power and convenience cost? Well, here's the really good news: the CipherUSB has an MSRP of $29.95, placing it well into impulse-buy territory. And that's our recommendation here: get one. There's a very good chance that your initial purchase won't be the last.
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