Absolute disk encryption

* You may lose your laptop, but WinMagic will keep your data secret

Headlines every few weeks shout "Laptop lost with 60,000 customer records" or "25,000 Social Security numbers on stolen notebook" or something equally disturbing. Given these leaks usually involve huge companies, what chance does a small company have of keeping data safe?

Well, for $30 WinMagic says it can protect data so well that a laptop stolen at a hacker's convention won’t yield any information.

Don't make the mistake of believing your Windows logon password protects your laptop's data. That security may keep out a toddler, but few others. And products that encrypt files or disks after the operating system starts require a bit more effort to hack, but ultimately protect little.

Trustworthy disk encryption isn't new, but the high price and complexity of encryption products kept them out of the reach of small companies. WinMagic started selling military-grade encryption products to large companies and governments about a decade ago. Its SecureDoc products encrypt laptops, desktops, servers and PDAs using proven encryption technology.

While the company’s corporate and government product suites cost thousands of dollars, its new MySecureDoc version for consumers and small businesses costs $29.95 retail (buy direct or from TigerDirect.com, their online partner). For an extra $20 you can add Media Edition to encrypt USB memory sticks (they get lost more than laptops).

WinMagic encryption works before the operating system starts. Data gets automatically encrypted as it's written to the disk, and automatically decrypted as it's read from the disk by applications. Taking the disk from a stolen laptop won't get access to the data, because everything on the disk is encrypted. The user provides a password to the WinMagic encryption application just like they provide a username and password to Windows, but in this case the password actually provides protection.

Is WinMagic cheating enterprise customers by selling a single-computer version for $30? No, because the enterprise suites include many management tools, such as remote access over a secure network and tracking encryption keys used in thousands of computers. The core encryption, however, is the same for both products.

For security geeks, all WinMagic encryption products use the same FIPS 140-1 level 2 validated cryptographic engine incorporating the AES 256-bit encryption algorithm. Decoded, this means WinMagic works well enough to be the product of choice for the U.S. State Department, Homeland Security, and the NSA (National Security Agency, the spooks above the FBI and CIA spooks).

WinMagic President and CEO Thi Nguyen-Huu says, "all things being equal, users want their disk to be encrypted. Now they can protect their data from identity theft just like they protect their data against viruses."

Consider this product another in the long list of "optional" products you must have to keep your Windows computer functioning today. Anti-virus? Check. Anti-spyware? Check. Data protection? Oops.

Don't beat yourself up because you haven't encrypted your data before. The technology, while available, has been expensive and complex. Need to run an anti-virus sweep of your disk? With most encryption products that means decrypting and re-crypting the files. Backup? Ditto. No wonder even the largest companies rolled this out primarily to high-risk laptops (WinMagic deployments are 75% laptops, 20% desktops and 5% servers).

But nine years of research and refinement give WinMagic a good shot at becoming the default choice for the small company encryption standard. While $30 doesn’t give you the management tools used by large companies, you get the same core encryption technology and e-mail support.

You can also define a password hint during MySecureDoc installation to help you. However, if you forget your password and your hint doesn't help, your data will remain encrypted and safe, even from you.

Not even WinMagic can break the encryption, so be careful and use a memorable but secure password (longer is better, and combinations of numbers and letters and symbols work the best). And please, whatever you do, don't write your password on a piece of paper and put it in your bag with the laptop. You laugh, but that happens every day. Don't let the joke be on you.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.