How to roll out full disk encryption on your PCs and laptops

Full disk encryption is key to meeting compliance rules, but watch out for those Macs

Hardly a week goes by when some organization or another doesn't lose some laptops and face a litany of IT security questions.. One that always comes up: Were the systems encrypted?

Hardly a week goes by when some organization or another doesn't lose some laptops and face a litany of IT security questions. One that always comes up: Were the systems' disks fully encrypted?

Sometimes the answer is "Yes", but plenty of organizations have yet to make the leap to full disk encryption.

Quiz: Do you know IT security? 

I asked Michael Kamens, information security officer at WGBH Educational Foundation in Brighton, Mass., to lay out the basics of what desktop and laptop encryption entails since he's been spearheading an encryption project involving hundreds of computers at his organization.

If an IT shop is starting from scratch, what's technically involved in encrypting PCs and laptops?

It is a huge undertaking as each computer must be touched, first by pushing the agent out and second it must be configured by the user. By configuration, the service desk must show the end user how to set up a secure passphrase that will allow their computer to move past the BIOS. Additionally, the encryption process takes anywhere from four to six hours and does impact the speed of the computer, so it should be run after hours. Probably the biggest source of errors is not disabling the hard drive from going to sleep, which will stop the process from completing.

What are the benefits of desktop and laptop encryption from a compliance standpoint?

It is mandatory under MA Privacy Law 201 CMR 17 and under Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) on any computer containing Personal Identifiable Information (PII) and/or credit card data. The real benefit is that a lost laptop that "might" contain such data will be unreadable to anyone other than the company and/or owner. This provides a safeguard that eliminates the risk of violation as today most companies have difficulty knowing exactly what's stored on the computer. But the question I raise at my presentations is: Can you afford to be on the front page of your newspaper or the 6 and 11 o'clock news. The obvious answer is everyone should encrypt to protect privileged data from being read if (really when) a laptop is stolen.

Are there separate challenges in encrypting Macs vs Windows PCs?

There are only two companies that offer Mac encryption – PGP and Check Point and since Apple does not play nice in the sand box, the vendors cannot deliver a single sign-on solution. On a PC, once you enter your passphrase on boot up, you are automatically logged into the network. However, with a Mac, you must enter your encryption password and then you are presented the network log-in, which requires another log-in. Additionally, during your project installation phase you must ensure that every OS is compatible. One stumbling block is that only Intel-based Macs can be encrypted today, which could have an impact if you have PowerPCs that cannot be encrypted, requiring replacement or no encryption.

Is there any reason to go with third-party tools when vendors offer their own (like Microsoft's BitLocker for Windows 7)?

You must use a third-party vendor as the PC and OS vendors' offerings (Apple and Microsoft) are not geared for truly effective centralized management. Without centralized management you don't have an easy way to manage, recover lost passphrases or view all encrypted computers to see their status. We use PGP and users do forget their PGP passphrase. The centralized management console allows us to provide a 32-bit one-time unlock token that we give to the user. Since security is critical, whenever we request this token (every token is different for every computer – no universal token) we are prompted with a "pop up" informing us that all actions are tracked and audited. Just think if you don't have the ability to provide an unlock token, you'd have to format these computers and re-image.

What are the human (as opposed to technical) challenges in encrypting desktops and laptops?

You must be tough -- as in, it's my ball and my glove, so if you want to play you need to do as I say. We do not make the choice of encryption optional. If you are in a protected class, your computer is encrypted. We have IT, HR, Legal, Finance and Executives in the protected class in addition to those handling credit cards and/or intellectual property and privileged information.

Is it expensive?

Depending on number of licenses, the cost can range between $150 to $200 per user, plus the cost for vendor professional services to assist in the installation, configuration, roll-out and training the trainer. So is it expensive when compared to the cost of fines for violating privacy laws or PCI, which can run in the millions not to mention brand damage. I think it's a bargain.

Is it time consuming?

To do it right with Macs and Windows I would say two support people can do 10 to 25 machines a day as long as you have the ability to push the clients out and can dedicate resources. In our case, JAMF Software's Casper and Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager is used to push out the agent. One area that most do not account for is the time for user training.

Any tricks or tips?

Most vendors will provide you with the ability to do a proof of concept. We used the vendor's hosted servers rather than build our own which really made it easier and faster. You must plan on who is getting encryption to get a valid number of licenses. The use of vendor professional services I consider critical in the success of your rollout -- or prepare to spend a lot of time calling support. Remember to ask your vendor if their product works with your mix of computers and then make them prove it. Finally, set up end user training to reduce the amount of support calls.

Are you an enterprise IT customer who would like to share your expertise on a specific network topic like this? Let me know at bbrown@nww.com

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