A Detailed Look into Encrypting Your Flash Drives

Categories: News & Resources, Tips & Tricks

Why encrypt your flash drive?

If you’re going to use a flash drive, encryption is one of the best ways to protect your data.

Encryption can help protect the sensitive data on an external drive should it fall into the wrong hands through loss or theft, but there are other reasons for encryption, too. For instance, non-encrypted flash drives can leave you vulnerable to malware and other device security threats.

But what does it really mean to encrypt your data and how does it work? Encryption means only those with an encryption key file or password will be able to access the data on an encrypted flash drive.

So even if your flash drive falls into the wrong hands, those unintended third parties won’t be able to access or understand the information the drive is holding and therefore would be unable to use it for nefarious purposes.

If you’re looking for an easy way to carry or back up your digital data, a USB flash drive offers you an affordable solution. Flash drives are small, portable data storage devices that you can literally slip into your pocket.

Convenient? Yes. But what if the personal data stored on your flash drive is exposed? While this external portable device is compact and easy to carry, it’s also easy to lose or have stolen for those same reasons. We sell lanyards and keychains to help keep track of your devices as well, but sometimes they can still be lost or left in the wrong place. 

That’s where encryption comes in.

Knowing Your File Systems

An important factor in the encryption process for your flash drive is your filesystem. Your filesystem organizes your drive by dictating how and how much data is stored, and what type of data can be attached to files.

Apple supports three file systems: Apple File System (APFS), Hierarchical File System (HFS) Plus, and extended File Allocation Table (exFAT). Windows also supports exFAT, along with NT File System (NTFS) and File Allocation Table (FAT32).

Different filesystem types will impact your encryption options in different ways. If you would like a separate blog post explaining the differences comment below. 

While this information isn’t necessarily essential for the operation of your flash drive, this is important when looking to encrypt your drives.  

Encrypting a flash drive on a Mac computer

Since I am a Mac user, I will start with the steps you’ll need to take to encrypt a flash drive using a Mac. Encrypting your flash drive is different on a Mac because Apple uses the APFS or HFS+ filesystems to encrypt removable media, so you’ll need to format your drive accordingly. Here’s how.

Step 1: Erase drive (consider consulting an expert first)

To format your external flash drive with the HFS+ filesystem, for example, start by opening the disk utility app. Then select your USB drive and choose Erase. Keep in mind that you could erase any data that’s already on the external or flash drive. You may want to consult a professional for advice.

Step 2: Format File System

After choosing the MacOS extended format and erasing the drive, format it with the HFS+ filesystem.

Step 3: Encrypt drive

To encrypt your drive, right-click your USB drive in your Finder and select Encrypt.

Step 4: Set password

Enter a strong password to keep others from gaining access.

Encrypting a flash drive on a Windows computer

Windows uses built-in encryption software known as BitLocker drive encryption, which is built into Windows Vista, Pro, Ultimate, Enterprise, and Windows 10. While Bitlocker can encrypt your operating system drive and fixed data drives on your computer, Bitlocker to Go can encrypt your external USB flash drive and external hard drives. Windows also gives you a choice between three filesystems, as mentioned above.

Step 1: Choose filesystem

To start, choose which file system you want to use — NFTS, exFAT or FAT32 — by right-clicking your drive and choosing Format.

Step 2: Encrypt drive

To encrypt your flash or external drive, select the drive in your file explorer, hit your Manage tab, Select BitLocker, and turn BitLocker on.

Step 3: Set password

You’ll then choose how you want to unlock the drive — with a smart card, password, or both. If you choose to set a password, create a strong password and enter it twice.

Step 4: Save recovery key

You’ll then need to choose how you want to save your recovery key, in case you forget your password.

Encryption software options

Some flash drives offer built-in encryption, so you won’t have to use encryption software or a third-party app. If your drive doesn’t already provide encryption, you’ll need to decide which software is right for you. Your decision will depend on factors that include your operating system, ease of use, level of encryption, safety features, speed, file size, and cost. A separate blog post will be published offering different software options.