Flash drives, thumb drives, USB sticks: they’re more than keychain accessories, whatever you want to name them; they can be used to hold essential details you wouldn’t want to place online.
But there is one problem that most physical media are plagued by. Anyone who discovers it will get access to whatever is inside if you lose a CD, external hard drive, or USB drive.
But just like protecting your smartphone with a password, you can do the same with your USB drive. You can encrypt the entire drive, protecting it from people who don’t have the password (i.e. everyone except you).
How To Password Protect a USB Flash Drive
1. Protect the Drive Using BitLocker
The most straightforward way to protect a USB drive is to password protect the entire device. That way, everything on the drive is secured, and even if you add new content to the drive at a later date, it will also be protected.
There are third-party encryption tools on the market that serve special needs, but for 99% of Windows 10 users, the built-in encryption tool is perfectly adequate.
The Windows 10 tool is called BitLocker, and it works on all sorts of drives, not just removable USB drives. It is free and easy to use.
Protecting a drive takes only a few seconds with BitLocker.
1. Insert the USB drive into your computer.
2. Navigate to This PC in Windows Explorer and right-click the USB drive.
3. Select Turn BitLocker On.
4. Select ‘Use a password to unlock the drive’ and enter a password twice.
5. Select Next.
6. Select where or how you want to receive your recovery key in the next window and select Next.
7. Select ‘Encrypt entire drive’ and then Next.
8. Select ‘Compatible mode’ in the choose which encryption mode screen and then hit Next.
9. Select Start encrypting.
The Explorer icon for the USB drive will now change to include a padlock. When you want to access the drive, double-click it and you will be prompted for a password.
2. Protect the Drive Using VeraCrypt
If you want to protect your drive but don’t quite trust Microsoft’s built-in tool, you can use VeraCrypt, a similar software package from the software company Idrix.
It is open-source and freely available. VeraCrypt actually has more features than BitLocker but is still fairly easy to use to protect a USB drive.
Some of the main features of Veracrypt include entire encryption of storage devices (such as USB), automatic and real-time encryption, hardware-accelerated encryption, and plausible deniability).
Protecting a drive is quite a tedious process using VeraCrypt but it isn’t very complex.
- Launch the VeraCrypt app by typing “veracrypt” in the search box, selecting the app, and hitting return.
2. Click on Create Volume, select “Encrypt a non-system partition/drive,” and click Next.
3. Select “Standard VeraCrypt volume” and click Next.
4. Click Select Device and select your USB drive from the list of devices that appears, then click OK, then click Next.
5. Select “Encrypt partition in place.” If you select the other option and there is data on your drive, the data will be overridden and lost. Click Next. If you are protecting an empty drive, select “Create encrypted volume and format it” and click Next.
6. Select the encryption method and hash algorithm you wish to use. You can pretty much choose any of these and it will be fine unless the NSA is coming after your data. Click Next.
7. Confirm the volume size and click Next.
8. Enter and confirm your password, then click Next.
9. Decide whether you will have large files on this partition or not. Click Next.
10. Move the mouse randomly around in the window while VeraCrypt randomizes the cryptography. Your mouse movements apparently add randomness to the keys the program selects. Move them around until the bar is green, then click Format.
11. Confirm the format command and wait. This process will take a few minutes to an hour or more.
12. Mount the formatted drive in VeraCrypt (entering the correct password) and your drive will now be encrypted and functional.
3. Buy a Secure USB Drive
If you don’t use Windows 10, or would rather buy a USB drive with hardware-based security, there are options available in the market.
Some of these USB drives will have physical keys on the casing for protection while others will require a software key to unlock; some require both.
The advantage of a secure USB drive is that they can include military-grade encryption; however, they much more expensive. Where you would typically pay $10 for a normal 32GB USB drive, you can pay in excess of $130 for the same capacity secure drive.
Unless you need military-grade encryption or a specific hardware solution, I would stay away from these secure USB drives. It’s hard to justify the cost when you could buy a standard drive for a few dollars and then use VeraCrypt or BitLocker to provide data security.
We would suggest using VeraCrypt if you don’t have the Pro or Enterprise version of Windows for encrypting the entire USB drive.