How to Encrypt a USB Flash Drive

If you carry any sensitive or personal information on a USB flash drive, you should consider encryption to make sure your data is secure. Here’s a reintroduction to encryption and a guide on how to encrypt a USB flash drive.

We’ve discussed how to encrypt your hard drive using BitLocker for Windows, and how to encrypt your Mac using FileVault. For USB flash drives, there are three options: you can use BitLocker for Windows, use third party encryption software, or buy a USB stick that has hardware encryption built in. It’s worth pointing out that all three of these USB encryption methods are not completely secure, and hackers have found ways around them in the past. There have been vulnerabilities found in BitLocker and other third-party encryption software, and hardware-based encrypted USB flash drives have similarly been hacked. Nonetheless, hacking encrypted USB flash drives is still incredibly difficult and requires a lot of time, effort and skill. For your average USB flash drive user, it shouldn’t be too much of a worry.

Encrypting your USB flash drive with BitLocker will mean that the data on it can only be accessed with a password whenever it is connected to a computer. First, after installing BitLocker, connect your USB flash drive to your machine, right-click it, and click “Turn on BitLocker”. You’ll then be presented with a list of ways to unlock the drive after it has been encrypted; for most users, this is by setting a password. You will then need to choose what to do if you forget your recovery key – you can save it to your Microsoft account, save it to a text file, or print it off. Be aware that Microsoft will hand over your security key if served with a warrant, however. Next, you can choose how much of the USB flash drive you want to encrypt. If the USB stick is brand new, you can simply encrypt the used space, and then all new data will be encrypted as it’s added. On PCs running Windows 10, you’ll be presented with two options – new encryption mode and compatible mode. The former is more secure, but is only compatible with Windows 10 onwards, while the latter should be selected if you’re planning on connecting your USB flash drive to a machine running an older operating system. BitLocker will then begin encrypting your USB flash drive, with the time it takes depending on how much data is being encrypted. In future, when your USB stick is connected to your PC, you’ll be asked to enter the decryption key in order to access the data stored on it. To turn BitLocker off at any point, simply right-click on the drive and select “Manage BitLocker”, and finally “Turn off BitLocker”.

There are also multiple third-party programs for encrypting your USB flash drive. VeraCrpyt is the one we’d recommend using. The successor to the popular TrueCrypt software, VeraCrypt has top-grade encryption, and is compatible with Windows XP onwards, as well as Mac OS X 10.6 and above, and Linux. You can also purchase USB flash drives that have encryption built-in, removing the need for using software to encrypt the data stored on them. SanDisk make one such USB flash drive, the ‘Extreme”, available in models from 16GB to 64GB.