Do you need encryption on external hard drive?

Quick Answers

Here are quick answers to common questions about encryption on external hard drives:

  • External hard drive encryption is recommended to protect sensitive data from unauthorized access if the drive is lost or stolen.
  • Encryption protects data even if the hard drive is removed from its external enclosure.
  • Software encryption like BitLocker for Windows and FileVault for Mac OS are easy to use options to encrypt external hard drives.
  • Hardware encrypted external hard drives provide seamless encryption but cost more than standard drives.
  • Encrypted external hard drives may have lower data transfer speeds due to the encryption overhead.

What is an external hard drive?

An external hard drive is a portable data storage device that can be attached to a computer via a USB connection. Unlike the primary internal hard disk drive inside your desktop or laptop, external hard drives are standalone units that do not need to be mounted inside a computer case.

External hard drives consist of a standard hard disk in a secure enclosure and come in varying storage capacity sizes from 500GB to 10TB or more. The enclosure provides the hard drive power from a USB cable and makes the data readily accessible from any device with a USB port.

Common uses of external hard drives

External hard drives are extremely useful devices for storing and accessing large amounts of data from different computers. Some common uses include:

  • Backing up important files – External hard drives provide a great way to back up your photos, videos, documents and other important data.
  • Expanding limited storage space – If the internal hard drive on your laptop or desktop is full, adding an external hard drive effectively expands your storage capacity.
  • Portable access to data – The compact size and USB interface allows external hard drives to be easily transported and connected to other computers.
  • Collaborating and sharing large files – Easily share and transfer gigabytes of data between computers with an external hard drive.
  • Time Machine backups on Mac – External hard drives are supported as backup storage devices for Time Machine on Mac computers.

Reasons you may want encryption

While external hard drives offer excellent benefits, their portability also comes with risks. If an external hard drive is lost or stolen, the data on the drive is vulnerable. Here are some main reasons you should consider using encryption on external hard drives:

  • Prevent unauthorized data access – Encryption converts data on the external hard drive into an unreadable format. Without the proper encryption key, unauthorized users cannot access the data if the drive is misplaced.
  • Compliance with data regulations – Certain standards like HIPAA require encryption of sensitive data. Encrypting external hard drives can help meet compliance obligations.
  • Extra data security on public computers – When using external hard drives on public computers, encryption provides an important layer of protection against malware.
  • Protect data after disposal – Even after external hard drives are erased, unencrypted data can still be recovered. Encryption offers permanent protection.

External hard drive encryption options

There are a few different options available for encrypting data on external hard drives. The most common solutions include:

  • Software encryption – The operating system provides built-in tools to encrypt external hard drives. Examples include BitLocker on Windows and FileVault on Mac OS.
  • Hardware encryption – Some external hard drives come with dedicated hardware encryption processors for automatic encryption.
  • Third-party encryption programs – Software like VeraCrypt offers a platform-independent open source solution for encrypting external hard drives.

Software encryption with BitLocker and FileVault

The most convenient built-in external hard drive encryption options are Microsoft BitLocker for Windows and Apple FileVault for Mac OS. Here is an overview of using these software tools for encryption:


  • Included in Windows Ultimate and Enterprise editions
  • Encrypts entire partitions or external drives with AES-128 or AES-256 encryption
  • Configurable encryption modes like user authentication and recovery keys
  • Manage BitLocker through File Explorer, Windows Control Panel or Powershell
  • Seamlessly encrypts external hard drives that are connected via USB
  • Right-click the external drive in File Explorer and select “Turn on BitLocker”


  • Full disk encryption tool included in Mac OS X and MacOS
  • Encrypts external drives with XTS-AES 128 encryption
  • Simple setup through System Preferences
  • Uses user and recovery keys for access to the encrypted data
  • To encrypt an external drive, connect it and open System Preferences > FileVault > Turn On FileVault.

The advantages of using BitLocker and FileVault is that they are seamlessly integrated encryption solutions requiring minimal user intervention. Setting up encryption on an external drive is straightforward. Just enable encryption on the drive, wait for it to encrypt, and use a password or key to unlock it.

Hardware encrypted external hard drives

External hard drives with built-in hardware encryption typically use dedicated chips to automatically encrypt data on the drive. Some examples include:

External Hard Drive Encryption Details
Apricorn Aegis Padlock SSD AES-256 hardware encryption
iStorage diskAshur2 SSD AES-256 XTS hardware encryption
LaCie Rugged Secure SSD AES-256 hardware encryption
Samsung T7 Touch SSD AES 256-bit hardware encryption

The advantage of hardware encrypted hard drives is that encryption and decryption is seamless with no impact on performance. However, the disadvantage is the higher cost compared to software solutions.

Third party encryption with VeraCrypt

VeraCrypt is a popular open source disk encryption tool that can encrypt hard drives and external storage devices like USB drives. Key features and benefits include:

  • Free and open source software
  • Available for Windows, Mac OS and Linux
  • Creates encrypted containers or encrypts entire hard drives
  • AES, TwoFish, Serpent, AES-TwoFish, AES-TwoFish-Serpent encryption options
  • Hidden encrypted volumes within partitions
  • Prevents brute force attacks with PBKDF2 password strengthening

VeraCrypt offers more configuration and flexibility compared to built-in BitLocker and FileVault encryption. But it requires more manual setup. VeraCrypt must be installed on each operating system and partitions must be manually encrypted.

Impact of encryption on external hard drive performance

Encrypting data on external hard drives adds security but also impacts performance. Here is how encryption affects speed and usability:

  • Reduced read/write speeds – The encryption and decryption processes cause slower data transfers. Encrypted speeds can be 20-50% slower compared to unencrypted.
  • Increased password entry – Encrypted external drives require unlocking with a password or key, adding extra input steps when accessing data.
  • Encryption overhead – Heavy encryption like AES-256 has higher CPU utilization which can reduce computer performance.
  • Potential compatibility issues – Some older operating systems may not recognize hardware encrypted external hard drives.

With powerful modern devices, minor speed decreases may not be very noticeable in everyday use. But users should be prepared for encryption to reduce s transfer rates.

When is encryption unnecessary for external hard drives?

While encrypted external hard drives provide an important data security benefit, there are some cases when encryption may be unnecessary:

  • If the external hard drive only contains non-sensitive public data like home videos or music files that have low privacy risks if accessed by others.
  • If you are using the external drive in a physically secure location like at home, without taking it to public places where it could be lost or stolen.
  • If you use other layers of data security like strong password protected user accounts on your computer.
  • If you already have an automated backup of the external hard drive files on another device.

Weighing the sensitivity of the data and likelihood of device theft can help determine if encryption is worthwhile for your usage.

Should you encrypt your external hard drive?

Here are some key considerations when deciding if you should encrypt your external hard drive:

Pros of Encrypting

  • Prevents unauthorized access if external drive is lost/stolen
  • Meets regulatory compliance for personal data handling
  • Extra protection when using external drives on public computers
  • Permanent data protection even after drive disposal
  • Built-in solutions like BitLocker and FileVault are easy to use

Cons of Encrypting

  • Slower data transfer speeds due to encryption/decryption
  • Inconvenient password entry required to unlock drives
  • Encryption overhead can impact computer performance
  • Manual setup needed for third party encryption tools
  • Encrypted external drives cost more than standard drives

Tips for effective encryption

If you choose to encrypt your external hard drive, follow these tips to maximize security:

  • Use full disk encryption instead of file/folder encryption whenever possible.
  • Choose AES encryption with a 128-bit or 256-bit key for strong protection.
  • Use a long, complex, and memorable master password to prevent brute force guessing.
  • Store the recovery key or passphrase in a safe place in case you forget the password.
  • Turn on automatic lock after inactivity to prevent unauthorized exposure.


Encrypting your external hard drive provides vital protection against unauthorized data access if your device is lost, stolen or improperly disposed. While software encryption tools like BitLocker and FileVault provide adequate security for most users, businesses and power users may prefer hardware encrypted drives or third party tools like VeraCrypt for optimal control and configuration.

Carefully weigh the benefits and drawbacks of encryption based on your specific external hard drive usage, data sensitivity and performance needs. But with external drives being highly portable and prone to theft, some level of encryption is recommended for most users to ensure privacy and security.

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