What does SD card encryption do?


SD card encryption is the process of encoding the data on a Secure Digital (SD) memory card so that it can only be accessed by authorized users. It converts the data on the card into an unreadable format using encryption algorithms and an encryption key. Decryption using the correct key is required to access the data again.

The purpose of SD card encryption is to protect the confidentiality of data stored on the card if it gets lost or stolen. Encryption ensures that unauthorized parties cannot simply insert the SD card and read sensitive files like photos, documents, or other personal data. This is particularly important for removable storage devices like SD cards which can easily be misplaced.

How SD Card Encryption Works

SD card encryption works by using cryptographic algorithms to scramble data stored on the card so that it is unreadable without the proper decryption key. The most common encryption algorithms used for SD cards are AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) and RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman).

AES is a symmetric encryption algorithm that uses a secret key to encrypt and decrypt data. The key is generated randomly when encryption is enabled. AES encrypts data in blocks, so the data is divided into fixed length blocks of say 128 bits, then each block is encrypted using the key. Decryption reverses this process by using the same key to decrypt the blocks.

RSA is an asymmetric algorithm that uses a public and private key pair for encryption and decryption. The private key is kept secret while the public key can be widely distributed. The public key encrypts the data and only the private key can decrypt it. RSA is often used alongside symmetric encryption like AES to securely transfer encryption keys.

On an SD card, full disk encryption encrypts the entire card so all data is scrambled. File and folder encryption selectively encrypts only designated files/folders. Encryption is done at the flash translation layer between the card file system and raw NAND storage so it’s transparent to the OS.

Performance overhead of encryption comes from computational processing to encrypt/decrypt data on read/write operations. Capable SD card controllers have built-in hardware acceleration to minimize this overhead.

Source: https://www.newsoftwares.net/blog/how-to-recover-data-from-an-encrypted-sd-card-after-a-broken-screen/

Full Disk Encryption vs File/Folder Encryption

Full disk encryption (FDE) encrypts the entire hard drive or storage device, including the operating system, programs, and all files. With FDE, no data can be accessed without the encryption key, providing comprehensive protection. However, FDE can impact performance since everything needs to be decrypted on-the-fly. Examples of FDE include BitLocker on Windows and FileVault on MacOS.

In contrast, file and folder encryption only encrypts specific files or folders chosen by the user. The rest of the hard drive remains unencrypted and accessible. This allows faster access to non-sensitive data. But it also creates a security risk if sensitive data is left unencrypted. File/folder encryption relies more heavily on users properly classifying and encrypting sensitive content.[1][2]

In summary, FDE provides comprehensive protection at the cost of some performance, while file/folder encryption allows selective encryption but introduces user error risks. The optimal approach depends on the use case and security requirements.

Built-In SD Card Encryption

Some SD card manufacturers such as SanDisk and Samsung offer built-in encryption capabilities for their SD cards. This allows users to encrypt the entire contents of the SD card at the hardware level using a password or PIN code.

The encryption is applied directly to the flash storage chips on the SD card, providing full disk encryption. Once enabled, all data written to the card is automatically encrypted. To access the data, the correct password or PIN must be entered.

The major advantage of built-in SD card encryption is that it does not require any additional software. The encryption and decryption processes are handled transparently by the SD card itself. This makes it easy to use the encryption feature by simply enabling it in your device’s settings.

A potential downside is that if the password is lost, the data on the SD card may be unrecoverable. Some SD cards provide a limited number of attempts to enter the password before the card is locked, so special care must be taken to store the password in a safe place.

Overall, built-in SD card encryption provides a straightforward way to protect data on the go without installing any extra software. It uses proven encryption algorithms to securely encrypt data directly on the device hardware.

Third Party Encryption Software

While some operating systems like Android and Linux have built-in SD card encryption, Windows requires using third party tools for full disk encryption. Some popular third party encryption software options for SD cards include:

Veracrypt – An open source disk encryption tool that can encrypt SD cards. It supports creating encrypted volumes that can store folders and files. Veracrypt offers strong AES and TwoFish encryption algorithms.

BitLocker – Microsoft’s full disk encryption tool included with some versions of Windows. BitLocker can provide full SD card encryption when enabled. It utilizes AES encryption algorithms.

SD Encryption – A paid application from the Microsoft Store specifically designed for SD card encryption on Windows. It allows setting a password and encrypting the entire SD card.

These third party tools provide robust encryption options for SD cards on Windows operating systems. They allow users to fully secure SD card data through password protection and disk encryption.

Encryption Key Management

Encryption key management refers to the policies and procedures for protecting, storing, organizing, and distributing encryption keys. Keys are generated through cryptographic algorithms and are used to encrypt and decrypt data. Effective key management is crucial for maintaining the security of encrypted data.

According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s Encryption Key Management Fact Sheet, proper key management involves:

  • Generating strong keys using secure cryptographic algorithms
  • Storing keys securely, often in hardware security modules
  • Establishing policies for key usage, access controls, and periodic rotation
  • Backup and recovery procedures in case keys are lost or corrupted
  • Destroying keys when they are no longer needed

Effective key management limits access to keys, reduces the risk of unauthorized use, and facilitates key replacement when needed. Organizations typically use a centralized key management system with role-based access controls. Auditing and logging provide visibility into key usage. Following industry best practices for the full lifecycle of keys is critical for maintaining the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of encrypted data.

Encrypting SD Cards on Smartphones

Many modern smartphones, both Android and iOS, have built-in options to encrypt external SD cards inserted into the device. This allows you to add an extra layer of security to the data stored on the SD card.

On Android devices running 6.0 Marshmallow or newer, you can encrypt an SD card by going to Settings > Security > Encrypt external SD card. Simply tap the button to encrypt the inserted SD card with your lock screen security (pattern, PIN, or password). [1]

For iPhones and iPads, encrypting external storage works a bit differently. You’ll first need to install the SanDisk iXpand Drive app, which allows you to manage and access external SanDisk storage drives. In the app settings, you can turn on encryption for the connected drive using your device passcode. This encrypts the entire drive, securing all data stored on it. [2]

On some older Android devices, you may need to format the SD card and select the option to encrypt it before use. Newer smartphones encrypt inserted SD cards by default.

Encrypting the external storage on your mobile device protects the SD card data in case your phone is lost or stolen. It adds an extra layer of security on top of screen lock passcodes.

Performance Impact

Enabling encryption on an SD card does come with some performance drawbacks. According to research by VMware, enabling encryption on their virtual storage product vSAN resulted in a 10-15% reduction in read IOPS (input/output operations per second) and a 20-30% reduction in write IOPS [1]. Another study evaluating TrueCrypt encryption on a laptop found an overall 4% decrease in benchmark scores [2].

The performance impact occurs because encrypting data requires additional computation before it can be written or read from an SD card. Encryption algorithms need to take the raw data, encrypt it using the encryption key, and then write the encrypted data to storage. The reverse process occurs when reading encrypted data. So the encryption/decryption processes add computational overhead.

For devices that rely heavily on small random I/O like smartphones, the effect may be more noticeable. The same encryption and decryption needs to occur when apps save data or load data from storage. So users may notice lags when switching between apps or waiting for apps to load. The impact depends on the performance of the smartphone processor.

Overall, encryption does degrade read/write speeds and device performance due to the computational overhead. But for many use cases, the impacts may be acceptable given the enhanced security and privacy benefits.

Data Recovery

Recovering data from encrypted SD cards can be challenging. When a card is encrypted, the data is scrambled and unreadable without the proper decryption key. However, with the right tools and techniques, it is sometimes possible to recover data from encrypted cards.

Specialized data recovery software like Tenorshare 4DDiG can bypass encryption and scan encrypted cards for recoverable data. The software looks for residual file signatures that were not fully overwritten during encryption. This allows some files to be reconstructed.

The success rate depends on the encryption method and strength. Weaker encryption like AES-128 provides a better chance of data recovery than stronger AES-256 encryption. The longer a card has been encrypted, the less recoverable data will be available as more gets overwritten over time.

Physical damage to encrypted cards also reduces the chances of data recovery. The encryption key is required for the best results when attempting to recover data from encrypted SD cards. Without the key, only fragments of files may be recoverable.


In summary, SD card encryption is an important data security measure that can protect sensitive information stored on removable media from unauthorized access. Encryption transforms plaintext data into ciphertext that is unreadable without the proper cryptographic key. Both full disk encryption and file/folder level encryption options exist for SD cards, with built-in solutions offered by some device manufacturers as well as third party software options. Properly implementing encryption requires carefully managing cryptographic keys and understanding the potential performance impacts. While encrypted data is not immune from being deleted, encryption still provides strong protection of confidential data at rest and enables secure deletion capabilities. Overall, for any individual or organization with sensitive data, utilizing SD card encryption should be considered an essential best practice for information security.

Implementing robust encryption protects the confidentiality and integrity of data stored on SD cards and other removable media. As high profile data breaches have demonstrated, lack of encryption can lead to catastrophic data leaks when devices are lost or stolen. Encryption serves as a last line of defense, mitigating risks associated with device theft and unauthorized data access. With proper key management and protocols, sensitive information can be stored securely on removable media and protected from compromise. For any individual or business handling private data, making use of available encryption features is a critical step for information security due to the integral role encryption plays in safeguarding data.