This is a review of the Ironkey Personal secure USB flash drive.
Many people use USB sticks or memory sticks, also called USB keys, thumb drives, flash drives and the like, for portable storage or transport of data from computers.
But they can be used to store confidential or sensitive information, e.g. copied from government databases by government employees, and are unfortunately all too easy to lose or steal (e.g. with info on suspected terrorists, vehicles of interest to the police, RAF personnel and NHS patient’s medical/personal details) - yet often they are allowed by UK government departments to be used unencrypted, despite a few recent improvements.
Is something like an Ironkey secure memory stick the answer?
- hardware-based encryption of the files on the stick (using AES encryption) with military-grade waterproofing / shock resistance, and
- secure surfing with Portable Firefox (what they call “internet protection” – it’s only “free” i.e. included in the original price for a year; after that you have to pay an ongoing subscription).
It certainly cost enough, at an eye-watering £80. Well OK, it cost less than a Ferrari, granted, but considering that you can get USB drives with far greater capacity for under a tenner, you want to be sure you’re getting your money’s worth. And in my case, I don’t think I did.
My view? Unless perhaps you’re a government department, don’t buy an Ironkey - except maybe for encrypted storage of any sensitive passwords (Personal or Enterprise versions) or files (Basic version) you might want to carry around with you (and even then, you can encrypt files or store passwords securely on a normal price USB thumb drive for free using the excellent open source TrueCrypt software, although it seems you need administrator rights on the computer you plug it into – I’ve not used TrueCrypt enough, myself, and will report further when I have).
I should say that I was also frustrated that I’d bought the Ironkey on the basis that they’d promised Linux support would be forthcoming. New models released just after I bought mine did support Linux, but it took Ironkey forever to roll out upgrades enabling existing units to support Linux.
Secure web browsing?
I’d wanted to use the Ironkey for secure surfing too, e.g. plugging it into a public computer in a public library or internet cafe and then surfing the web via portable Firefox i the unit, but in my view it wasn’t fit for that purpose because:
- At least in all the London libraries / cafes I tried, it doesn’t work – they lock things down so you can’t use Portable Firefox on the Ironkey
- The point of security is, well, security. Browsers ought to be upgraded as and when browser security updates are issued. If Ironkey really cared about security they would immediately provide upgrades for the browsers built into their units as soon as security updates were made available. But for months after major Firefox security upgrades were released last year, you couldn’t download security upgrades for the browser on the Ironkey. Maybe you can now, but I’ve stopped asking Ironkey or looking on Ironkey’s site. I can’t use the browser anyway, see the previous point.
Also, their secure web sessions are based on but claimed to be much faster than Tor – being routed through Ironkey’s own computers, hence the periodic subscription fee. Whether you trust the security and anonymity of things going through their routers (they’re headquartered in California) is of course up to you.
For those interested (but really I’d suggest you save your money), the Ironkey:
- comes in a nice strong shiny metal case
- requires a password to access its contents, and physically “self destructs” internally if the wrong password is tried too many times
- (Personal and Enterprise editions only) includes a password manager which enters your saved passwords for you (make sure you’re keylogger free first!) – that’s actually the only use I’d see for it, myself
- (Personal and Enterprise editions) lets you backup your passwords to the Ironkey site, and yes I know, you have to trust how they say it works
- enables some portable applications to be run from the drive.