What is an encrypted external drive?

An encrypted external drive is a portable storage device that uses encryption to protect the data stored on it. Encryption scrambles the data so that it can only be accessed by someone with the correct encryption key or password. This prevents unauthorized access to the data if the drive is lost or stolen.

What are the benefits of an encrypted external drive?

There are several key benefits to using an encrypted external drive:

  • Increased security and privacy – Encryption protects sensitive data from being accessed by unauthorized users if the drive is misplaced or stolen.
  • Portability – External drives are small and lightweight so you can transport large amounts of data easily.
  • Backups – External drives provide an easy way to back up important files.
  • Cross-platform compatibility – Most encrypted external drives can be used across Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems.
  • Remote access – Some encrypted drives include cloud storage or remote access features for accessing data from anywhere.

How does encryption work on external drives?

Encryption on external drives works by using an encryption algorithm and password to transform plain text data into unintelligible ciphertext. Here is a basic overview of how drive encryption works:

  1. An encryption key is created based on a password provided by the user.
  2. The encryption algorithm uses the key to encrypt the drive by scrambling all the data stored on it.
  3. Once encrypted, the data appears scrambled and inaccessible to anyone who does not have the password.
  4. To access the data, the correct password must be provided which generates the original encryption key used to encrypt the data.
  5. The encryption algorithm and key unscramble the data back into its original plain text form so it can be accessed by the authorized user.

The encryption used is designed so that the ciphertext cannot be unscrambled without the proper key. This prevents unauthorized access while allowing easy data access for authorized users.

What encryption algorithms are used?

There are several common encryption algorithms used for drive and file encryption. Some examples include:

  • AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) – A symmetric algorithm that uses a single key for encrypting and decrypting data. Widely adopted and secure against attacks.
  • Twofish – A symmetric key algorithm similar to AES. Provides high speeds and is secure.
  • Blowfish – An older but still reliable symmetric encryption algorithm known for good speeds.
  • Serpent – A symmetric algorithm designed as an alternative to AES. Known for high security.
  • CAST5/CAST6 – Symmetric ciphers used in some commercial encryption products.

The AES algorithm with 256-bit keys is commonly used for drive encryption due to its strong security and performance. The encryption method used can vary based on the specific drive and encryption software.

What types of external drives can be encrypted?

A variety of external drive types offer encryption capabilities, including:

  • External hard drives – Portable hard drives that connect via USB and often include backup software with encryption.
  • USB flash drives – Small thumb drives that plug into any USB port and can have encrypted partitions.
  • Solid state drives (SSDs) – Fast, durable external drives with no moving parts, available with encryption.
  • Rugged drives – Portable drives designed to withstand dust, drops, and extreme temperatures while encrypted.
  • Wireless drives – External drives that connect via WiFi and offer encryption through required software.

Many external drive manufacturers now include software tools for encrypting the entire drive. Encryption capabilities may also depend on the operating system, since Windows, Mac OS, and Linux offer built-in drive encryption options.

What software is used for encryption?

There are some common software options for encrypting external drives:

  • BitLocker – Built-in drive encryption for Windows. Easy to use and reliable.
  • FileVault – Native encryption for Mac OS drives.
  • Veracrypt – Open source, cross-platform software for encrypting drives and volumes.
  • DiskCryptor – Open source encryption option compatible with Windows.
  • LUKS – The standard for Linux drive encryption, built into many distros.
  • Proprietary vendor software – Tools like Western Digital’s SmartWare that come with external drives.

The software used will depend on your operating system and the specific drive. For example, WD and Seagate drives include their customized encryption tools for Windows and Mac OS. Software options like VeraCrypt give you more control and options for encrypting drives on Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Should I encrypt the entire drive or just files/folders?

For external drives, you generally have two main options for encryption:

  1. Encrypt the entire external drive – This fully encrypts the entire drive so all data is scrambled. Simple to implement but less flexibility.
  2. Encrypt only certain files or folders – This allows you to choose which specific files/folders to encrypt leaving others unencrypted. More work but more control.

Encrypting the full drive is typically recommended for external drives for optimal security. That way if the drive is lost or stolen, no data is compromised. File and folder encryption is useful for encrypting only your most sensitive data while leaving other data unencrypted for easier access.

What are the disadvantages to encrypted drives?

There are some potential downsides to using encrypted external drives to be aware of:

  • Slower performance – Encryption can slow down data transfer speeds due to the encryption/decryption process.
  • Chance of data loss – If the encryption key or password is lost, the data may be unrecoverable.
  • Extra steps to access data – Having to enter a password each time can be inconvenient for some users.
  • Encryption not foolproof – Skilled hackers may still be able to crack encrypted drives given enough time.
  • Higher cost – Encrypted drives typically cost more than non-encrypted models.

However, for most users the security and privacy benefits of encryption outweigh the potential performance impacts or risks in most cases.

Should I use software or hardware encryption?

Drives can be encrypted using either software or hardware methods:

  • Software encryption – Uses software tools to encrypt data on the drive. Typically easier to implement but can impact performance.
  • Hardware encryption – Encryption is handled at the hardware level. Fast but requires compatible drive hardware.

Software encryption offers more flexibility since it can be used with any drive. But hardware encryption is generally faster and more seamless. For external drives used to store sensitive data, hardware-based encryption is typically recommended when available.

How does hardware-encrypted USB work?

Hardware-encrypted USB drives use built-in hardware encryption chips/modules to handle encryption instead of software. Here is an overview:

  1. The encryption chip generates an encryption key when the user first configures and encrypts the drive.
  2. The key is stored in the encryption module on the drive and is protected from access.
  3. As data is written to the drive, it passes through the module and is encrypted in real time before being stored.
  4. When reading data, the module decrypts data on the fly before passing it to the host computer.
  5. The encryption/decryption processes are seamless and fast due to dedicated hardware resources.

If the USB drive does not have the correct encryption key, data passing through the module remains scrambled and inaccessible. Hardware encryption is fast, strong, and convenient for securing external drives.

What are some best practices when using encrypted external drives?

To get the most security and effectiveness from encrypted external drives, keep these tips in mind:

  • Use a strong password – Use a long, complex master password that would be difficult to crack.
  • Store passwords separately – Never save encryption passwords on the encrypted drive itself.
  • Back up passwords – Keep spare copies of passwords in a safe place in case they are lost.
  • Use multiple hard drive encryption tools if needed – Using something like BitLocker and VeraCrypt provides redundant protection.
  • Encrypt the entire drive – Full disk encryption provides maximum security.
  • Watch out for malware – Malware could compromise a drive’s encryption keys if installed on the host computer.
  • Physically secure the drive – Store the drive in a safe place when not in use to prevent theft.

Following best practices for drive encryption enhances security and avoids potential issues accessing encrypted data in the future.

What are some top encrypted external drive models?

Some top hardware encrypted external drive options include:

Drive Key Features
Western Digital My Passport External SSD Fast solid state drive with AES-256 hardware encryption.
Seagate Backup Plus Hub External HDD High capacity external HDD with Seagate Secure self-encryption.
Samsung T7 Portable SSD Compact and fast encrypted SSD up to 2TB.
Apricorn Aegis Fortress L3 Rugged encrypted HDD with keypad unlock and hardware encryption.
iStorage diskAshur2 External HDD Military grade encrypted HDD with physical number pad access.

There are also many software encryption options for drives that don’t have built-in hardware encryption. Which model works best for your needs depends on your performance, capacity, and security priorities.


Encrypted external drives provide an excellent way to protect sensitive data through disk encryption standards like AES-256. They offer a portable and convenient way to secure data at rest that can provide protection if a drive is lost, stolen, or subject to unauthorized access. Just be sure to practice safe encryption protocols by using strong passwords and properly securing the drive when not in use. With hardware encrypted external SSD and HDD solutions from all the major manufacturers, there are many options for finding a rugged, fast, high capacity encrypted drive that fits your needs.