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Review: 7 secure USB drives

By Bill O'Brien, Rich Ericson and Lucas Mearian
March 3, 2008 12:01 AM ET

The IronKey Secure Flash Drive

IronKey compares its Secure Flash Drive to an iPod, saying it's a hardware, software and online service all rolled into one product. I don't know about the iPod comparison, but from a security standpoint, this flash drive is impressive. The IronKey Cryptochip uses government-approved AES, CBC-mode, 128-bit encryption at the hardware level.

I tested the 4GB model. The drive comes in a sleek, stainless-steel, waterproof case that feels sturdy and quite heavy compared to other USB drives we've tested. The case has been injected with an epoxy compound that blankets the inner workings and keeps them dry and shock-resistant. Security-wise, what we liked right off the bat about this model is that the case would be extremely difficult to pry open without destroying what's inside. There is only a single seam along the drive's tightly-fitted, metal backing.

Security features

The first thing the IronKey drive asked me for after I plugged it into my laptop's USB port was to set up a username and password and configure a secure Web browser, which takes about two minutes. (There is little about setting up this device that is fast, but keep in mind that you're sacrificing speed for security.) IronKey has a password generator that can create passwords up to 99 characters in length at either normal strength with alphanumeric characters or stronger strength, which includes all keyboard characters.

To use the IronKey flash drive, you need to activate an online account. This is a necessary step to enable certain services -- such as online password backup, device and software updates and to access IronKey's encrypted Web-surfing service, which uses Mozilla's Firefox.

Besides creating an online username and password, you'll be asked to supply answers to three supplemental authentication questions that will verify your identity in case you ever lose your username or password. Failing to answer the questions accurately will lock you out of your account permanently.

After filling out your supplemental authentication questionnaire, IronKey then asks you to choose a photo from a group of antiphishing/antipharming protection images so that every time you log into your online account, the images appear and you can be assured it's IronKey and not a counterfeit site. But you're not done yet. Now you must also create a security phrase consisting of letters and numbers, which will also be used to authenticate your identity when you log into the site.

Finally (and believe us, I was happy to know this was the last step), the company e-mails you an activation code that you must enter in a window to complete your online setup. The company does allow you to change personal security information at any time by accessing account settings. IronKey states that no malware can disable the drive's security features as it employs two-factor authentication, requiring the key in addition to your password to access the content.

The IronKey Secure Flash Drive
Click to view larger image

After the initial setup, each time you plug in your IronKey drive, a menu will appear offering you the option to back up and encrypt files, manage your passwords and online account, change settings or access a FAQ page. One feature that I like about this menu is an option to leave the USB drive in the port, but also to relock the device so that if you walk away from your computer, no one walking by will have access to the device and the data stored on it.

IronKey automatically backs up your online passwords as you use them and offers secure data backup both locally and remotely, so that if you lose the physical drive, you can buy another drive and download your data via the online backup service.

If someone does happen to gain access to your flash drive and they fail to type in the correct password more than 10 times, IronKey will self-destruct, permanently locking out users and wiping out all the data on the drive. (See white paper and data sheet on the IronKey drive.)

Speed

From a speed standpoint, IronKey is well above average for the drives tested. According to the company, its 4GB model is faster than the 1GB. The 4GB model that I tested is supposed to have a 18MB/sec. write and 25MB/sec. read rate. It took me 4 minutes and 15 seconds to back up 251 files in 29 folders that contained mostly photos and a half-dozen videos representing 1GB of data.

Hd Tach tests showed speeds well above IronKey's literature: 31MB/sec. burst speed, an average read rate of 29.6MB/sec., and a 6-millisecond random access rate. The CPU utilization rate was vastly higher than any other drive we tested, at 22%.

A 4GB IronKey Secure Flash Drive lists for $149. Prices on Pricegrabber.com ranged from $71.50 for the 1GB model to $149 for the 4GB drive.

IronKey states that the prices reflect the use of longer-lasting single-level cell (SLC) NAND memory, as opposed to multilevel cell (MLC) memory of other drives we tested. Although MLC memory increases data density by storing 2 bits per memory cell versus one in SLC, it also decreases the life expectancy of the device. SLC memory lasts about 100,000 write cycles and MLC memory lasts about 10,000 writes.

I became quite fond of the IronKey drive. The automated password feature was nice when Web browsing and I found the interface intuitive and easy to use. I'm not fond of IronKey's removable cap, as removable caps in general tend to go missing rather quickly, but otherwise, this is a fast, easy to use, very secure drive. -- Lucas Mearian



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