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iStorage – review

Credit: This is a © copyrighted article by Davey Winder that appeared in PC&TECH Authority Magazine – August edition – pages 108 and 109.

Would you like to put the most secure portable hard drive ever made to the test? That was the question asked of me, along with a promise that I’d be the first journalist on the planet to get properly hands-on with the diskAshur Pro2.1 could hardly say no, could I? So at the time of writing, I’ve been using the device in a very real-world setting for a few weeks now.

In my other job as managing analyst at IT Security Thing, I get to play with all sorts of interesting security-related devices. I also get to challenge an awful lot of outrageous claims. In this case, the whole “most secure hard drive ever” claim is pretty much impossible for iStorage to prove — or for me to dismantle.

Without wishing to burst too many readers’ impression bubbles, I don’t have the ear of insiders working for MI5, Asio or the FBI/NSA. I’d hope that these organisations have devices for transporting data that are equally as secure as the iStorage drive, and it would be super-cool if they exploded when tampered with for good measure.

Back in the real world, what I do know is that there have been plenty of instances where people working for government or law enforcement agencies have left laptops in a taxi or lost a USB memory stick with sensitive data upon it. Sometimes, the data on these devices isn’t even encrypted.

There is, without doubt, a need for securing data in transit. For most people, most of the time, that data isn’t commercially sensitive enough or of such national interest importance to warrant much more than the simplest of software encryption solutions.



But what if you’re dealing with truly sensitive data, of the type that’s covered by regulatory compliance requirements? What does the diskAshur Pro2 bring to the security party that other mobile data solutions do not? The simplest answer would be layer upon layer of security, enough to make it “GDPR-compliant”, as well as either already having, or pending, security certification — including Common Criteria EAL4+, F1PS 140-2 Level 3, NCSC CPA (Foundation Levet)and NLNCSA government accreditations.

If you need your data secured by a device that’s compliant with such things, then you’ll already know what that acronym-fest means. If you don’t, just take it from me that it means we’re handling some seriously secure hardware here.

And that’s where I’ll begin the hands-on bit of this “review” — with the hardware encryption. There’s an ongoing debate among security folk as to the benefits of hardware encryption over software encryption, which I find difficult to comprehend. Yes, software encryption is good enough for most people — and way better than no encryption at all. Yes, the software solutions tend to be cheaper and there’s more choice out there. The downside is that software encryption can only be as secure as the OS of the device upon which it’s installed enables it to be. An OS exploit can easily become an encryption vulnerability. Software encryption can also be turned off by the user.

Hardware encryption, on the other hand, is totally self-contained and platform/device agnostic. There’s no software to set up, no drivers to install, no OS to attack. In the case ofthe diskAshur Pro2, the full-disk encryption is by way of AES 256-bit inXTS mode. Plug it into any host device with a USB port, enter the correct PIN, and your data is instantly decrypted.

I’ll return to the specifics of that in a moment, but for now I must address another argument that some put forward at this point. Namely, that if you have a drive with a hardware-incorporated PIN pad then a thief will know the data must be of value and thus this makes you a bigger target. I don’t agree, and on so many counts.

For a start, if you’re being targeted by a serious criminal or government organisation then it makes no difference whether you have your data on a $10 memory stick or a $500 hardware-encrypted drive — they’re still going to attempt to steal your data. The difference it does make is that they’re likely to have much less success in accomplishing this task with the latter. I know which option I’d rather use.

Oh, and casual attackers aren’t simply waiting in the hotel lobby or airport café for someone to whip out a “secure drive” before attempting a drive-by hack. More to the point, someone transporting sensitive data on such a device is unlikely to be waving the drive around at every opportunity.

Talking of the water-and dust-resistant, epoxy-coated PIN pad, this is where the hands-on stuff starts to get interesting. Your PIN code must be at least sevendigits, and can stretch to 15. You can’t use sequential numbering for your code or all repeating numbers, for that matter. I’d change the factory default admin PIN of 11223344 sharpish, though; that’s just asking for trouble!

That aside, rather than be restricted to 0 to 9, the Shift key when used in conjunction with any number registers that as a separate value, making guessing a PIN much harder. Guessing isn’t a good idea anyway, as a total of 15 wrong attempts kicks the drive into self-destruct mode.

Actually, it’s better than that sounds. The 15 attempts are split into three groups of five under a brute-force protection umbrella. Five wrong guesses and the drive freezes, requiring physical reconnection before the next five goes are allowed. Get them wrong and it freezes again, but this time requires some Shift key jiggery-pokery while plugging it back in and a special code entering before offering one last batch of guesses. If those fail then the admin user PINs are reset and the encryption keys deleted, along with the data upon it. There’s also an admin self-destruct option that does the same thing, but using a data-exploding PIN code for want of a better term. That same PIN is then used as the new user PIN, and the drive will need repartitioning and reformatting to be usable again.

Fine, you say, but what if some clever tech guys have permanent physical possession of the drive – surely that’s game-over for your data privacy? Usually, I’d agree, depending upon who is doing the holding of course. However, even in this worst-case scenario it isn’t straightforward to get at the data. I’d go so far as to say that pretty much all the access techniques I know about – including laser attack and fault injecting, which can compromise most storage devices – fail here.

External tamper controls are impressive. In fact, with any attempt to physically dismantle the device being met by the internal components encased in layers of ultra-tough epoxy resin, it would almost certainly break those components during the attack process. This “tamper-evident” design is important: it’s good to see that someone has attempted an attack, even if they’ve failed. The active-shield violation protection also means that any attack on the microprocessor would initiate a deadlock state for the drive and require a power cycle to continue. Indeed, all the authentication parameters are encrypted and protected by the microprocessors’ memory encryption and access control schemes.

You also get protection from “stupid user syndrome”, whereby the drive will go into lock down if left unattended for a specified period of time (5 to 99 minutes), requiring PIN entry to start up again. The drive also does this when ejected from any host, or when the lock button is pressed on the keypad.

Is being ultra-secure worth the premium that the device costs? That isn’t easy to answer, and will depend upon your data protection and regulatory compliance requirements. Maybe it’s better put the other way: can your organisation afford not to invest in truly secure data portability technology?

The 124mm x 84mm x 20mm (225g) device I’ve been testing is a “spinning rust” version, which is the cheapest route to entry. My 500GB drive, which I discovered packs a pretty reliable 7,200rpm SATA 600 WD Black laptop drive inside, runs at a price of around $400. The 2TB spinning rust version takes that up to $500.

My CrystalDiskMark 5 sequential read/ write testing revealed that the drive was tittle different, despite the hardware encryption, to any other USB 3.1 external drive I had to hand. The SSD versions of the drive will improve the speed, but at a cost: the512GB equivalent is a hefty $800. The iStorage website has details of all the variants inthe range, with price and distributor information.

So, two big questions: is it the most secure portable hard drive ever made? I will venture the Carlsberg response: probably. Should you rush out and buy one? Possibly. If you’re a home user playing at data privacy without the regulators breathing down your neck, probably not. For you, software encryption is secure enough if you do it properly. Of course, doing it properly is the difficult bit and that’s the uncertainty the diskAshur Pro 2 removes. For any organisation that needs to transport sensitive data – and wants to make absolutely certain it’s as secure as it can be in transit – it’s a no-brainer.


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