Somebody asked me about whether I encrypt any of my external drives. The answer is yes – Mac OS X 10.7 Lion added the ability with FileVault 2 to encrypt an entire hard drive with XTS-AES 128 encryption (which is about as good as you can get while still making it easy). It’s handy when traveling, especially with the smaller USB/FireWire drives which can sprout legs and disappear. I’m talking about the smaller drives that use the 2.5-inch laptop hard drives. I’ve put together a couple of small FireWire 800 drives using Macally FireWire 800/USB 2.0 Enclosure (PHR-S250UAB) (Amazon is cheaper than dedicated Mac shops for this particular enclosure) and I also have a Western Digital My Passport Studio 1 TB FireWire 800 External Hard Drive (Amazon) that I picked up on sale.
Why FireWire 800?
Although this article is about encrypting external drives, I know somebody might be wondering about my choice of drives. FireWire 800 drives or buying FireWire 800 enclosures is a little pricier than the USB route, but my MacBook Pro supports it as does my iMac, it’s faster than USB, and you can daisy-chain devices, which frees up USB ports. There are also times where I handle a large amount of large files, such as when I’m scanning photos or dealing with home video or interviews, and it’s worth the speed increase. I do not have Thunderbolt interfaces on either of my Macs. Hopefully by the time I feel the need to upgrade, Thunderbolt-based external drives will be cheap and easy to obtain.
So why encrypt your external drives?
Imagine losing an external hard drive or flash drive. If you’re like me, you may be using it as a backup to your Mac(s), at least temporarily, or as supplemental storage. I do make use of Time Machine, however I leave my Time Machine backups in a secure location and don’t carry them with the computer. I use external drives when I’m traveling for manually backing up on the go and storing extra data and information. Those who are on MacBook Air’s with the smaller Solid State Drives (SSDs) are probably using external drives a lot, and although they are using USB or Thunderbolt devices instead of FireWire 800 like me, the information below still applies.
I have financial information, scanned receipts, emails and email attachments, and the other assorted digital things that we all come into contact with in our daily lives. It’s the nature of the “digital world”. In addition to being a Mac user, I’m obviously a genealogist. I end up with a lot of information such as copies of birth certificates, family photos, and other documents that I would not be comfortable having other people access without my permission. Imagine losing a hard drive with some personal information about a family member, and having to tell them that you didn’t take any precautions with that information even though it’s easy to do so? Awkward, very awkward.
The bottom line is that if somebody steals one of your external drives or flash drives, they aren’t going to be able to get the information off the drive if you have FileVault 2 enabled on the drive.
VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: Once you’ve encrypted an external hard drive with File Vault 2, if you lose or forget the password, that data is gone!