Review: 7 secure USB drives

Should you trust these flash drives to safeguard your data?

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The SanDisk Cruzer Professional

SanDisk's Cruzer Professional has what appear to be some highly secure features and a simple-to-use format. As do many products in its class, the Cruzer Professional uses a 256-bit AES, hardware-based encoding. The encryption algorithm uses the Electronic CodeBook (ECB) mode (which security expert Bruce Schneier says is not as secure as the Cipher Block Chaining (CBC) mode). The National Security Agency has approved the 256-bit AES algorithm for top-secret use (CBC or ECB) -- so it's better than an old cigar box sealed with blue masking tape, provided you actually use it.

The Cruzer Professional sports a conventional design -- very professional looking with dark gray colors and a sleek case that feels like it has a bit of a sprayed rubber coating. There's even a pocket clip to remind you that it shouldn't be left unattended on a car seat or desk.

Security features

SanDisk also sells a Cruzer Enterprise model. Both models offer password protection and hardware based, 256-bit AES encryption. The main difference is that the Professional model lets you create Privacy Zones, which allow 1% to 100% of the drive's total capacity to be password-protected. Any area outside the Privacy Zone is unprotected and open to any user. The Enterprise model requires the entire drive to be password-protected for corporate security purposes.

Also, the Enterprise model (see picture) can be deployed to employees across a company and centrally managed through SanDisk's Central Management and Control (CMC) server software. Cruzer Enterprise CMC supports password recovery and renewal through the network, remote termination of lost drives, central backup and restore, as well as central usage tracking and auditing.

The Cruzer Professional's Privacy Zone is explained in a 16-page electronic user manual that walks you through the steps of setting it up. The user interface for that operation is part graphical and part text-driven, and takes only a few minutes at the most. There's no suggestion of a long and complex password, but do keep in mind that the better a password you create (a longer mixture of alphabetic and numeric characters combined with symbols), the more difficult it will be for someone to guess it. It allows up to 21 characters.

Once you're done, unless you enter your password by clicking on the icon found when you open the flash drive, the only indication that your Privacy Zone exists is that the overall capacity of the Cruzer Pro will appear smaller -- by the same amount as the zone you've created. Otherwise, whatever you've tucked into the zone is out of sight, and logging out of the zone closes it. All of this occurs on the flash drive. No trace is left on your computer or any computer you use to initiate access.

Speed, pricing and the bottom line

While SanDisk touts the Cruzer Professional as having an "ultrafast transfer speed," Hd Tach test results were not quite as enthusiastic. The average read speed was 13.4MB/sec., or roughly half of what some flash drives are capable of. Ad hoc testing with music and video files showed no degradation during playback, though.

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The SanDisk Cruzer Professional

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The Cruzer Pro is available in 1GB, 2GB and 4GB versions, and is Vista ReadyBoost qualified -- although that would negate its use as a secure vault for your transportable data. ReadyBoost is supposed to allow you to add memory to a system through the flash drive in order to improve performance. Computerworld, however, saw little benefit from its use (see "Vista's ReadyBoost flash drives lack significant boost"). The Cruzer Pro is also compatible with Windows 2000 (SP4), XP, and 2003 Server

The pricing for a Cruzer Professional on PriceGrabber is anywhere from $42 for a 1GB model to $108 for a 4GB model.

While the Cruzer Professional doesn't offer the same level of security as some other flash drives (or its own Enterprise version), it provides at least a reasonable amount of data safety for the business professional. --Bill O'Brien

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