Secure USB 3.0 Hard Drive

April 30, 2012
Technology Editor Bill Wong checks out Apricorn's Aegis Padlock 3 encrypted USB 3.0 hard disk drive. It is fast and secure.

Apricorn's Aegis Padlock 3 (Fig. 1) is a secure, shock mounted 1 Tbyte USB 3.0 hard drive. It is a little larger than Seagate’s USB 3.0 BlackArmor PS 110 is a 7200-rpm, 500-Gbyte hard drive (see USB 3.0: A Tale Of Two Buses) that I checked out over a year ago. Both deliver USB 3.0 performance but the Padlock 3 adds a water-resistant keyboard for entering your security code. No code. No data.

Figure 1. Apricorn's 1 Tbyte Aegis Padlock 3 (left) is a little larger than Seagate’s 500 Gbyte BlackArmor PS 110 (right).

The sealed, epoxy coated Aegis Padlock 3 I checked out is a newer version of the USB 2.0 one that Joe Desposito looked at (see Two New Drives Feature Data Protection That's Easy To Use). They all use the same technology as Apricorn's Aegis Secure Key (see The Fundamentals Of Flash Memory Storage). A keypad is used to enter a code to unlock the encrypted drive. In the case of the Aegis Secure Key, the drive is a USB flash drive.

The big difference between the Secure Key and the Padlock 3, other than the storage technology, is that the Secure Key has a battery so the code can be entered before the drive is plugged in. The code is entered on the Padlock 3 after it is plugged into a USB port. The status LED goes green after the correct key is entered and the drives work as usual.

The Padlock 3 uses a 256-bit AES encryption hardware so the drive can transfer data at USB 3.0 speeds. This includes the ability to stream HD video or any other data for that matter.

The keycode can be 6 to 16 digits. There is an administrator keycode and additional codes for users, if desired. A user code provides access to data but it cannot be used to manage the drive. There is a also a "self destruct password" the effectively makes the drive contents inaccessible. This simply deletes the internal key so the encrypted data can no longer be read.

It is possible to reuse the drive at any time by resetting the system and setting a new admin password. The drive will need to be reformatted. Out of the box, the drive is formatted as an NTFS drive with a PDF file that contains the documentation. The drive supports any format and any host since the decryption key is entered using the keypad.

It is a good idea to keep the documentation handy if you need to manage the Padlock 3 because there are no directions on the drive. There is one key combination to get into admin mode and other codes for programming other aspects such as a user password. None of the operations is difficult but nothing to commit to memory.

The admin password will typically be used when the drive is issued by a company to an employee. The employee password then provides access to the data on the drive.

In general, the drives are designed to be used by one person. The encryption applies to the entire drive. It would have been nice to have a paritioned drive where one password would provide access to a partition. Still, the Padlock 3 works as advertised and it is fast.

The Padlock 3 is definitely what is needed for enterprises these days. It works with USB 2.0 hosts although at a slower transfer rate. It has a idle lock out feature that occurs when the drive has not be used within the set time period. The keycode needs to be reentered to allow access.

USB storage is still needed and the Padlock 3 will be popular but there is a transition going on that will likely be addressed by similar wireless products. USB 3.0 is found on the latest PCs and laptops and it is also finding a home in set top boxes. Unfortunately USB 3.0 is not the rage when it comes to two other popular platforms: smartphones and tablets.

Wireless support brings up new challenges such as access synchronization. Likewise, encrypted communication may be something that needs to be mandated via the administrator.

About the Author

William Wong Blog | Senior Content Director

Bill Wong covers Digital, Embedded, Systems and Software topics at Electronic Design. He writes a number of columns, including Lab Bench and alt.embedded, plus Bill's Workbench hands-on column. Bill is a Georgia Tech alumni with a B.S in Electrical Engineering and a master's degree in computer science for Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

He has written a dozen books and was the first Director of PC Labs at PC Magazine. He has worked in the computer and publication industry for almost 40 years and has been with Electronic Design since 2000. He helps run the Mercer Science and Engineering Fair in Mercer County, NJ.

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