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Securing Key Chain Flash Drives

by Derrick Story
08/20/2004

Author's note: In this article I discuss how key chain Flash drives have become part of my daily workflow, then cover some of the strategies I use to secure them in case of loss.

I've become more fond of key chain Flash drives as their capacity has increased and their size has shrunk. They actually fit on my key chain now.

I like 'em for many uses, especially for file sharing. Yes, there are all of those other methods that work most of the time, such as iChat file transfer. But with the Flash drive, I simply plug it into one USB port, copy the file, plug it into my friend's USB port, and download the file -- all before you can spell log in to Rendezvous. And this works even if my friend uses Windows. (Yes, I have PC-toting mates too.)

I also find myself using key chain drives for temporary backup. If I write or photograph something important, I often make a quick copy of it to my Flash drive until I can run a full network backup. I like the feeling of having two copies of valuable files in two different places.

As closely as I guard my PowerBook, I know that it can disappear in the blink of an eye. Plus, I'm no stranger to hard drive crashes. In these situations, the files I often lament over are the ones I just worked on and don't feel like re-creating, even if it's possible to do so. Immediate backup is a big deal to me, and a key chain drive makes it easy.

So far, all of this activity sounds fairly harmless. I don't have to worry about the consequences I'd suffer if I misplace my Flash drive. Unfortunately, I didn't stop at harmless.

For some reason I'm hell-bent on carrying around my software registration numbers, Address Book contacts, iCal appointments, and other personal stuff. The main reason I do so is that it frees me from having to tote my PowerBook with me all the time. In my world there's usually a Mac within reach. Between storing my stuff online on my .Mac account and carrying it on my key chain, I always have access to my personal data.

Fantastic! That is, unless I lose my keys. And I've done that before too. So clearly, if I'm going to insist on carrying personal stuff around on a key chain, I need to secure it.

JumpDrive Secure

Figure 1. Lexar JumpDrive Secure.
Figure 1. Lexar JumpDrive Secure.

Many key chain drives advertised as "secure" forget to mention that the software works only with Windows. There's nothing like a good ole .exe file to rain on your parade. Fortunately, some manufacturers realize there's at least one more platform out there and have created software accordingly. Lexar is one of those good guys.

Lexar's JumpDrive Secure includes security software that uses 256-AES encryption for both Mac and PCs, and it's pretty good stuff too. The secure key chain model ranges in capacity from 64MB to 512MB. Currently, the 128MB model is on sale at Lexar's web site for $40, and the 256MB model is $65. Not a bad deal, especially after you read about the software that comes with them.

The Lexar security software lets you create different partitions on your key chain drive. The process takes only a few minutes. Note: Before you initiate the process, copy all of the Lexar software to your Mac hard drive. The process of setting up the security software entails wiping the key chain memory of everything, including the JumpDrive software.

OK, first you have to load a driver onto your Mac, then restart. You do this by launching JumpDrive Secure and following the prompts. Then you can relaunch JumpDrive Secure to configure your key chain drive. Enter your security settings in the Configure pane, as shown below.

Figure 2. You can partition your Flash drive using Lexar's software, then password-protect one of the partitions.
Figure 2. You can partition your Flash drive using Lexar's software, then password-protect one of the partitions.

Once you configure your secure partition and enter your password, the software wipes clear the entire key chain memory and sets up both the secure and public areas. You have to unmount and remount the Flash drive to complete the setup process. I then copied the JumpDrive software back to the public partition so I'd have it available regardless of which computer I'm working on.

Figure 3. Both public and secure partitions appear on the Mac desktop.
Figure 3. Both public and secure partitions appear on the Mac desktop.

Lexar includes some other nice utilities with its JumpDrive Secure software. When you launch the software, click on the Configure button to get to the utilities. The Info pane provides lots of useful data including the serial number, firmware version, partition sizes, and so on. The Format pane lets you wipe either the public or the secure partition independently. Very nice. And the Defragment pane is exactly that, a cool defrag utility that also allows you to work in either the public or secure zones.

After the setup process, insert the drive into a Mac. You'll notice that only the public folder appears. You can drag and drop in and out of the partition as you would with any Flash drive. If you want to access the secure partition, launch the JumpDrive Secure application (either from your Mac or the version in JumpDrive's public partition) and enter your password when prompted. The secure drive will now appear on the desktop along with the public drive that's already there.

Lexar provides a comprehensive PDF owner's manual that you should keep on the drive along with the software. It answers most questions you'll have and provides clear instructions for configuring it on both Macs and PCs.

All in all, I'm very impressed with the entire package Lexar has assembled. The Flash drive itself is handsome and durable. It's light enough to actually put on your key chain without straining the ignition switch of your car. You can buy extra caps on the Lexar site in case you lose the original. And the Mac software is smartly thought out and well executed. This is truly a two-platform gizmo.

Roll Your Own

You can secure your existing key chain drive too, even if it didn't come with cool software as Lexar's does. This is an old trick, but one worth repeating here.

You can create an encrypted disk image using the Disk Utility application (in your Utilities folder), then copy that encrypted image to your Flash drive. In order to mount the disk image, you have to enter your password. Even though the process isn't as convenient as it is with the Lexar software, it does get the job done.

After your launch Disk Utility, click on the New Image icon located on the top toolbar. Select the size you want. You can choose from a number of presets or create a custom size. Then enable encryption from the next drop-down menu. Be sure to give your disk image a name, then click on the Create button.

Figure 4. You can configure your secure disk image by clicking on the New Image icon on the top toolbar.
Figure 4. You can configure your secure disk image by clicking on the New Image icon on the top toolbar.

Disk Utility will build the disk image, then present you with a password dialog box. After you enter the password and verify it, I recommend that you not check the box labeled "Remember password." That way, you'll have to enter the password every time you mount the image, even on your own computer. If you want things truly secure, this is the way to go.

After a few moments, your new disk image will appear on the desktop. When you double-click on it, you'll need to provide your security password. You can add your personal data to this image, then copy it to your key chain Flash drive. To access its contents, double-click on the image, provide the password, and then drag and drop in and out of the mounted drive that appears in the Finder.

Figure 5. When you open the .dmg (disk image) file, a drive is mounted and available for your files using drag and drop.
Figure 5. When you open the .dmg (disk image) file, a drive is mounted and available for your files using drag and drop.

You can update the disk image that you keep on your Mac, then replace the older versions of it on your Flash drive as needed. This technique allows you to secure your data using any type of key chain drive.

Address Book Hack

One of the personal data files that I keep in the secure partition of my key chain drive is my Address Book. One way to do this is to use the backup command within Address Book to create an .abbu file that can be read by the Address Book application on any Mac. But what if you don't want to load your personal data into a community Mac?

Here's a nice hack that gets around this problem. Open Address Book and highlight all the entries in the center Name column that you want to include in this export. Then choose the Print command. Under Style, select "Lists," then check the Attributes you want to include. Now click on the "Save As PDF" button, and Address Book will create a beautiful .pdf file with all of your contact information, which you can read on any computer. Use the search field in Preview to locate the person you're looking for. It's slick.

Figure 6. You can save your entire Address Book, or parts of it, to .pdf for easy viewing on any computer.
Figure 6. You can save your entire Address Book, or parts of it, to .pdf for easy viewing on any computer.

This trick also works with iCal calendars. I like to make .pdf files of the monthly views. They are quite attractive and viewable anywhere.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of which method you use to secure valuable data on your key chain drive, I highly recommend that you use something. Just the other day I noticed someone's keys abandoned on a table in the break room. There was a Lexar JumpDrive Secure on the key chain. I'm sure the owner had enabled the software and wasn't panicking too much about his misplaced keys. I'm sure of it ...

Digital Photography Hacks

Related Reading

Digital Photography Hacks
100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools
By Derrick Story

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.


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