Hardware vs Software Encryption

Encryption is vital for keeping sensitive information safe. But what’s the difference between hardware encryption and software encryption, and which should you choose?

Encryption takes your data and scrambles it, ensuring only authorised parties can access it. Although the data will appear random and unreadable, those with the decryption key will be able to put the data back together and access it. There are two methods of encryption – hardware and software – and each offer advantages. This article will outline the pros and cons of both types of encryption.

Software encryption uses a software tool to encrypt data, without requiring any additional hardware. Examples of such encryption tools include BitLocker, and it’s far more common to see software-based encryption solutions. Software encryption is cheap to implement, and are easy to use and upgrade. However, software is only as secure as your operating system, and a security vulnerability could easily compromise the encrypted data. Additionally, some encryption software can be difficult to use, and users may opt to turn it off, removing any protection altogether. Because encryption software tools run like any other software would, they can cause performance issues as data is constantly being encrypted/decrypted.

Hardware encryption is self-contained within the device itself, and doesn’t require any additional software. This can be found on external hard drives or solid-state drives known as Self-Encrypting Drives (SEDs), and on smartphones; Apple’s Touch ID and ace ID are examples of hardware encryption. Hardware encryption requires minimum configuration by the user and will run in the background without causing any performance degradation. The encryption is always on, and as such it can’t be disabled by end users or by malware. Because the encryption process is separate from the OS, it makes it much harder to break. The major downside of hardware encryption is the cost. Software encryption tools like BitLocker are included free with all new versions of Windows, whereas an SED can set you back a lot compared to a regular drive. Data that is encrypted by hardware is also more difficult to recover in the event of data loss, as hardware encrypted devices are specifically designed to prevent data recovery in the event of theft.