Review: The Secure Key keeps your data safe

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Aegis Secure Key

The Gadget Guy reviews the latest technology for the government and explores related trends and hot topics.

Product Name: Aegis Secure Key 32GB

Company: Apricorn (www.apricorn.com)

Price: $179 (retail)

Operation: 8.5

Reliability: 9.5

User Experience: 9.0

Flexibility: N/A

Value: 9.0

(See rating criteria here.)

Government agencies have had a love/hate relationship with USB flash drives (or “thumb drives”) pretty much since they came out more than a decade ago. Network administrators have always been concerned with the potential breach of security the drives have represented.

In the early days, this concern was well-founded, as the drives of that era had no encryption or other methods to keep data safe. But they are still needed in many situations where documents need to be transferred, and using the Internet outside the network is not an option.

The Aegis Secure Key from Apricorn is a FIPS-certified USB flash drive that uses top-grade encryption to keep data stored on it safe from unauthorized personnel. It is the size you’d expect a thumb drive to be, and can thus fit into any pocket or laptop case with ease. The Secure Key comes with a metal sheath that protects the port and the buttons when not in use.

To use the Secure Key, I only had to enter the PIN with the numeric buttons along one side of the drive. Once it was entered correctly, I could use it like any other USB storage device. No drivers or software needed to be installed on the test computer. The military-grade full disk 256-bit AES CBC hardware encryption happens in real-time, and is pretty much impossible to crack without a supercomputer and a couple months.

If the drive is removed or the computer it is plugged in to gets turned off, the Secure Key automatically goes into locked mode, requiring another entry of the PIN to use it again. Also, if a certain number of incorrect PINs are attempted, the encryption key is deleted and all data on the drive is destroyed. Also, there is a drive reset feature that erases everything if you enter a necessarily complex series of button pushes. This allows you to reuse the Secure Key with confidence that past data is completely gone.

The Secure Key has a USB 2.0 interface, unlike the USB 3.0 capability on most unsecured drives available now. Because the encryption process for data copied to the device is a significant drag on processing speed already, the improvement of 3.0 over 2.0 would no doubt be welcome here.

In the transfer tests I performed, the Secure Key downloaded (moved from the computer to the drive) data at an average rate of 19.75 megabits per second (mbps), while the uploads averaged to 66.13 mbps. While these are good rates for a USB 2.0 drive with 256-bit encryption, they would be significantly better with a USB 3.0 interface. Hopefully, the next version will have that.

What impressed me the most about the Secure Key was its Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 Level 3 certification. This means that, not only is the level of encryption nigh-impossible to crack, but the entire drive is secure from physical attempts to crack into it. Simply having encryption is not enough if a hacker can get to the cryptographic module and read the decryption key. Most secure flash drives are certified to Level 2, which means any tampering will leave evidence, but it is not prevented.

The Secure Key’s internal components are sealed in a tough epoxy coating, which is virtually impossible to remove without irreparably damaging the electronics inside. This Level 3-certified method of stopping attacks on the drive puts the Secure Key ahead of many of its competitors in this area.

Apricorn has set the retail price for the Aegis Secure Key 32 GB USB flash drive at $179. This would a good price for any encrypted drive of this size, but for one with FIPS 140-2 Level 3 certification, it is an excellent one.

While many agencies have been loathe to adopt a USB flash drive policy, the Aegis Secure Key may get them to change their minds, at least for some tasks.

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