GCN LAB REVIEWS
Padlock secures data without slowing down collaboration
Aegis solid-state hard drive has fast transfer rates and nearly foolproof security
- By John Breeden II
- Apr 18, 2011
In the cartoons I watched growing up, important things were always locked behind oversize padlocks. And you know what they say about the more things change.
The Aegis Padlock resembles those padlocks from my cartoon days. It’s a solidly built rectangle that is 3.3 inches by 4.7 inches. It’s 0.75 inches thick and weighs 6.7 ounces. The front of the Padlock features a number pad. The bottom two nonnumber buttons on the pad are a Cancel button and an open lock symbol, which serves as the Enter key for the device. Each button lives on its own rubberized island, so the keys are not mashed together. You won’t accidentally hit a 6 when you mean to punch 5, no matter how large your fingers are.
Pros: Extremely fast; keeps data secure; solid construction.
Cons: Expensive for a hard drive.
Ease of use: A
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The design of the keys resists moisture. And beyond that, they also resist wear and tear, which is important to avoid tipping off potential hackers about which keys are used most frequently.
The device is actually a 750G hard drive. You can unhook a small USB cord from a carrying notch along the right side of the device and connect the drive to a computer. The cord is a little short for use with most desktop systems, requiring the unit to hang down from the front of the computer. But the Padlock ships with a USB extension cord to alleviate that problem. The cord also splits on one end to accommodate a female and male USB dongle on one end, should you run into the very odd situation of a nonstandard USB port.
When you plug the Padlock into a computer, nothing happens. There is a red light that illuminates at the bottom of the device to show that it’s connected, but it does nothing at all. Host computers will recognize that something is attached to a USB port, and clicking on the drive icon in the overview window will trigger an Insert Disk Into Drive warning. Needless to say, you can’t access the Padlock by just plugging it into a system.
You need to type your personal identification number on the pad and then hit the little unlock symbol. The red light will turn green, and the computer will then start the process of installing the drive.
In terms of performance, you would think that because all data sent to the drive is automatically encrypted to 128-bit or 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard, transfer times would be slow. But the fact that this is a solid-state drive more than makes up for the encryption process. There are no moving parts to slow it down. In fact, we were able to transfer about 1G worth of files to the Padlock in 47 seconds. That was an actual transfer rate of 196.7 megabits/sec, which makes it one of the fastest drives we’ve tested using a standard USB 2.0 port. To get any faster, you would probably need to upgrade to a USB 3.0 system. Transfer rates coming off the drive were even better. That same group of files went from the drive to the computer in 37 seconds, for a real transfer rate of 249.9 megabits/sec.
Besides encryption, the device is protected from hacking in several ways. If a PIN is entered incorrectly too many times, the device will turn itself off. To try again, you need to remove it from a computer and reinsert it. That foils any automated attempts at PIN guessing by requiring a manual reinsertion. But it keeps track of how many wrong attempts are made, even when the drive is removed and reinserted into a computer. If too many attempts are made, the Padlock assumes that it’s under attack. It then destroys its own encryption key, rendering the drive effectively useless. You can still reset the drive at that point if you want to use it, but its data is gone forever.
We have seen some devices that actually destroy themselves after too many invalid PIN entries, but that isn’t the case here. So someone who steals a Padlock will be able to use the device as a hard drive, though the data would be protected. We think this is an acceptable compromise between security and usability. It’s possible that someone might simply forget their PIN number, so in a worst-case scenario, they can at least start over with a blank slate and their expensive drive intact.
Device setup is extremely easy. There is no software to fiddle with. In fact, the drive comes with a little paper note card that walks you through the initial setup of entering your PIN and configuring security protocols. You could have as many as 10 users, each with their own PINs and a single administrator for each device.
In that sense, the Padlock would make a good way to securely transfer large files or collaborate among users. Even remote users could benefit if they were provided PINs to access the drive. You could simply FedEx the Padlock with the data and feel secure that it will be protected in all phases of transit.
In a lot of ways, that is a more secure way to move files than any system that requires data to be transmitted, no matter how tightly that transfer is controlled. The device also ships with a little carrying case of stretchy material that fits around the Padlock to protect it from the environment and make it a little easier to carry.
One drawback to the Aegis Padlock is its price. It’s a bit expensive, which is mostly because it's a solid-state drive. At $199, it’s about four times more expensive than another secure hard drive that also had a keypad that we tested in the Lab last year. However, that device didn’t use a solid-state drive, and the Padlock blew it away in terms of transfer rates. Plus, the Padlock is just better constructed with more rugged, wear-resistant buttons.
So this is definitely a case of getting what you pay for. If you need high-end security on a large-capacity hard drive, you can’t really get more secure than the Aegis Padlock. And the people who do will take it at almost any price — certainly at $199.