Microsoft BitLocker Review

IronKey verses BitLocker-To-Go with smart cards (part 2)

This post originally appeared on the Random Oracle blog at

The first post in this series described how the BitLocker-To-Go feature built into Windows can be used in conjunction with smart cards to encrypt removable drives, and offer an alternative to dedicated hardware such as IronKey devices with comparable security. In this second and final part, we continue the comparison focusing on scaling, cost effectiveness and ease of deployment.

From a cost perspective, BL2G wins hands down:

  • BL2G works for any external drive, as well as logical volumes and non-bootable partitions of internal drives. There is no need to acquire new hardware. Existing plain USB drives can be leveraged, avoiding new capital spending.
  • Even when buying new drives,  there is a huge premium for models with built-in encryption.  Data point from March 2013: 16GB model of IronKey Basic S250 retails for around $300. By comparison a plain USB thumb drive at that capacity costs less than $20, or one-fifteenth the price. Not to mention those vanilla drives boast USB 3.0 support, unlike the IronKey stuck with slower USB v2. The price discrepancy only gets worse with increasing capacity– a phenomenon that can only be explained by wide profit margins, considering that the addition of secure element to vanilla drive is fixed overhead.
    • For BL2G there is the additional expense of card and reader. Basic contact-only readers can be had for less than $20. (On the splurge side, even fanciest dual-interface readers with contact and NFC  retail top out around $130.) The cost of the card itself is noise; plastic cards cost around $10 in volume. Alternatively one can opt for USB tokens such as GoldKey that function as combined card-in-reader.
    • It is also worth pointing out that card and reader are not unique to a drive: the same combination can protect any number of drives. Not to mention, enable other useful scenarios including machine logon,  secure email and remote authentication. In short the one-time investment in issuing cards and readers is far more economical than buying dedicated drives.
  • Speaking of space, BL2G scales better to large capacities because it operates on commodity hardware. IronKey comes in different sizes but the largest ones in thumb-drive form factor max out at 64GB currently. Meanwhile plain 256GB drives have reached market, and are starting their inevitable drop in price. Because BL2G effectively implements the ”bring-your-own-drive” approach, it is not constrained by any particular manufacturer’s offerings.

From an administration perspective, the MSFT focus on enterprise scenarios leads to a more manageable solution:

  • The IronKey requires yet one more password to remember and does not fit into any existing enterprise authentication infrastructure. (For users with drives, consider the challenge of updating the password on all of them.) By contrast the same smart card used for logon to Active Directory can be used for BL2G encryption if provisioned with a suitable certificate. The user experience is one versatile credential, good for multiple scenarios.
  • Basic IronKey models can not recover from a forgotten PIN, unless the user activated an online account. Not even if the user is willing to lose all data and start from a clean slate with blank drive. (This conveniently translates into more sales for the manufacturer, so there is not exactly a lot of economic incentive to solve the “problem.”)  BL2G volumes have no such constraint. They can be wiped clean and reformatted as plain drives if desired.
  • BL2G can be integrated with Active Directory in managed environments. Group policy can be configured to back up encryption keys to AD, to allow for data recovery by IT administrators in case the primary (smart card) and secondary (printed key) unlock mechanisms both fail.

On the downside, there are deployment challenges to using smart cards:

  • BitLocker remains a Windows-only solution, while IronKey and its brethren have decent cross-platform support. In principle there is no reason why software could not be written to mount such volumes on OS X and Linux. (It is not clear Wine emulation will help. While there is a reader application available downlevel for XP,  recognizing BL2G volumes is part of core system functionality. There is no stand-alone executable to run in emulation mode to get same effect.)
  • BL2G requires smart card and card reader, or equivalent combined form factor as USB token. While plug-and-play support and developments in the Windows smart card stack for recognizing common cards has made this simpler, it is one more piece of hardware to consider for deployment.
  • Cards need to be provisioned with a suitable certificate. BitLocker can use self-signed certificates obviating the need for CA, but that assumes the card can support user-driven provisioning. This is true for GIDS for example, but not PIV which requires administrative privilege for card management and more suitable for enterprise setting.

Finally it is worth pointing out some options that try to integrate removable storage with a smart card reader. For example the @Maxx Prime combines a SIM-sized smart card reader with a slot that can accommodate microSD drives. Typically that SIM slot would be permanently occupied by a small form-factor card with support for certificates and public-key cryptography. Then interchangeable microSD cards can go in the microSD side to provide access to encrypted data, with the entire rig connected to a USB port.

**Disclosure: I am a real user, and this review is based on my own experience and opinions.
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