How to Encrypt an External Hard Drive

Encryption prevents the data on your external hard drive or USB flash drive from being accessed in the event of it falling into the wrong hands – and it’s easy to undertake.

The portability that external hard drives and other storage media like USB flash drives offer can be a double-edged sword; they are easy to transport, but the chances of your data falling into the wrong hands is higher. It’s not hard to lose an external hard drive, and even easier to lose a USB flash drive. Not only will your data be lost, but unencrypted, it will be available for anyone to access. If the data on your drive is encrypted, it will be near-impossible for anyone to access it. Encryption takes data and scrambles it, rendering it unreadable by those without a unique decryption key. There are two approaches to encryption – hardware and software. Hardware encryption is done within the drive itself, and doesn’t require any additional software. Software encryption, as the name suggests, uses software to encrypt data on a portable storage medium like an external hard drive or USB flash drive. Both of these solutions offer advantages and disadvantages, and one may be more suited to your needs than the other. We've previously written a comparison of hardware vs software encryption that you can check out here.

Your first choice, and something you’ll be able to right off the bat, is to try a free software solution. A great option to try out first is VeraCrypt, which can create a volume on your drive that can only be accessed with a password, or simply encrypt the entire drive, providing it’s not necessary for the running of your system. Volumes created can be set as hidden, meaning that if your drive gets into the wrong hands, your data won’t even be visible. Alternatively, they can be standard, meaning they’re visible to anyone, but still only accessible by those with the password. Other examples of encryption software capable of encrypting data on an external hard drive or USB flash drive include BitLocker, which is free with some versions of Windows, and CipherShed.

Alternatively, you might want to opt for a hardware solution. Self-encrypting drives (SEDs), encrypt data via a built in cryptoprocessor, which creates a random data encryption key (DEK). With a hardware encryption solution, you can get going without downloading any additional software. However, SEDs are typically priced higher than standard external hard drives, so it’s worth having a go using encryption software on one of your regular drives first.