Protecting Documents Gets Faster, Easier and More Mobile

I’ve been on a quest for a while to find software or hardware that makes it easy to protect sensitive documents such as financial documents, schematics, correspondence, lists and so forth. In fact, I wrote about two such products last year (see Two New Drives Feature Data Protection That's Easy To Use). The two products I looked at this time around are from the same companies, Smith Micro Software and Apricorn, but this time one is software and the other hardware—a USB device.

I purchased the software, called DocLock, from Smith Micro for $19.99, but it is actually a product of a company called Large Software. After downloading DocLock and installing it, I tried “locking” some Word and Excel documents. The user interface is clean, with only two main options: Lock a File and Unlock a File. You click on Lock a File and the UI changes to let you drag a file or files to a FileBox (alternately you can select the files from a file list and add them to the FileBox). After this, you click on Lock and are asked to either choose a password or let the program choose one for you. I did this and it locked the file in less than a tenth of a second. The only rub is that the unprotected file still exists on your computer until you delete it. But you can choose “Delete original files after locking” as an option.

You can also select a feature called “Save password as an image.” This feature caused me to pause and think: What the heck does that mean? Well, suppose you have the program generate a random password for your file. Obviously, this will not be easy to remember. If you save the password as an image, the program embeds the password into any image you select on your computer. When you unlock the file, all you have to do is open the image and DocLock retrieves the password—very neat. And, no, you can’t see the password in the image. It’s buried in the code for the image.

DocLock has four compression settings, eight encryption settings and four cipher modes. Besides locking and unlocking files, the program will manage your passwords and delete files securely if you choose to do so.

What happens if you want to take a locked file with you, on a USB stick for example, and open it on another computer? No problem, the program creates an .exe file, and you just need the password to open it on another computer—very convenient. DocLock can also create an email friendly (.zip) locked file that allows you to send the file securely to another person whether or not they have DocLock—but they’ll need the password, too.

The other product I looked at was a review unit from Apricorn--the Aegis Secure Key. This is essentially a USB stick with a combo lock on it. The stick contains a 0-9 keypad arranged in two rows of five, plus a key with a key icon on it and three LED indicators. An aluminum enclosure that is dust and water resistant covers the stick when you carry it around.

Using the device is simple and, once activated, works as fast as a typical USB stick. To activate the stick you press the key icon, enter a 7-15 digit pin and then connect it to your PC or other device. The device comes up just like any other USB device, installing its drivers the first time you use it. Once connected, all data moved to the drive is encrypted in real-time with 256-bit AES CBC (cipher-block chained) hardware encryption. After you’re finished copying or moving your files to the device, you just pull it out of the PC and off you go, knowing that no one can access those files except you, thus protecting your data if the drive is lost or stolen.

Like its previous products in this category, Apricorn goes the whole nine yards in trying to protect your data from getting into the wrong hands. Besides encryption, there’s protection against brute force attacks, keystroke logging, and physical tampering of the device. For example, internal drive components are protected by a super tough epoxy compound that is virtually impossible to remove without causing permanent damage to the electronics. This prevents a potential hacker from accessing the encryption circuitry and launching a variety of potential attacks.

I tried the Aegis Secure Key on a couple of Windows PCs, but it also works with other OSs including the Apple Mac, Linux, Android and Symbian. So, not only can you use the device with PCs, but also with tablets and mobile devices that contain USB ports. Pricing starts at $95 for the 8 GB model and $125 for the 16 GB model.

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Joe Desposito has held the position of editor-in-chief of Electronic Design since July, 2007. He first joined the publication in 1998 as a technology editor covering test and measurement but quickly...
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