Keeping Flash Drives Secure By Conn McQuinn

My USB flash drives (or thumb drives or whatever!) are really handy, but also really easy to misplace. Is there a way to protect the files if (or when) I lose it?

The good news about USB drives is that you can inexpensively store many gigabytes of files in a small, convenient device; the bad news is you can easily lose that small, convenient device. If you are using your drive for storing any kind of information you don’t want shared all across the world (whether it’s your student’s grades or that angry letter you wrote just to get it out of your system but never plan to send), you need to consider your security options.

If you the files you’re keeping on the drive are Microsoft Office files, you can password protect those files so they can only be opened by you or someone else that knows the password. In Office 2003, when you choose Save As, in the upper right corner of the save window will be a button labeled Tools. Click that button and scroll down to Security Options. The top option of the dialog window that opens will give you a place to enter a password for allowing access to the document. Put in the password you want and click OK, and then complete the saving process. In Office 2007, the Tools button is in the lower left-hand corner of the Save window, and you’ll need to select General Options to enter your desired password.

Now every time the document is opened, it will require entering the password. You need to write down this password – you cannot recover it if you forget it! (I speak from personal experience on this.)

While this works for Word, Excel, or PowerPoint files, it is kind of cumbersome if you have a lot of documents, and you may be storing other kinds of files. In that case, you may want to look at using programs that password protect all the files on the USB drive. One password locks or unlocks all of the files on the drive at once. These come in two basic flavors – programs that you install on your computer, and programs that install on the flash drive itself. If the software is installed on the computer, it works much faster, but you need that software installed on any computer where you use the flash drive. If the software is installed on the flash drive, you can use it with any computer, but the process of unlocking the files can take much longer, depending on how many files you have stored on the drive.

I have been using a program called Truecrypt (, which has the dual advantages of being multi-platform (Windows, Mac, and Linux), and being free. It can work as either computer-based or run from the flash drive (the latter is Windows only). It’s a very powerful program that has many high-level capabilities, but once you learn to use the interface (it has very good step-by-step instructions), it is quick and easy to use. As with the Office documents, you need to record your password – it cannot be recovered if you lose it!

If you plan ahead, you can purchase USB drives that have password security built in (or even fingerpint scanners!). If you search online vendors with the term “secure usb drive,” you will find quite a few options that cost only a few dollars more than an standard drive. (Most seem to be for Windows only, so this may not be a solution for Mac users.)