With the arrival if my new Dell Inspiron laptop just before some planned vacation travel I decided to try out disk encryption. My plan was to encrypt a USB drive and add an encrypted container for files on my laptop. Using Windows Bitlocker would have required upgrading to a more expensive version of Windows 7 so I went with the free Open Source TrueCrypt. In addition to being Open Source, it’s also cross-platform and runs on Windows, OS X and Linux.
Installation was simple, after downloading the latest version I ran the installation executable and ran through the wizard. There’s only 5 screens during the install. They’re shown below, along with the options I used. They’re pretty self-explanatory and don’t affect the operation of TrueCrypt itself, just how you want to access it. Nothing gets encrypted during the installation.
I decided to do the full install, rather than install in “portable mode”. Portable mode is used when the extract option is picked on the first screen. It allows encrypted containers to be created but can’t encrypt the system drive. I do the full install so that I have the option of full drive encryption should I decide to go that route. It’s a 64-bit application and uses less than 8MB for the installation.
The beginner’s tutorial referred to on the last screen is available on the TrueCrypt website. Starting up TrueCrypt presents the main screen:
Creating A Encrypted Volume
My USB Flash Drive is already in a USB port (as Drive F:) so I click the “Create Volume” button to start the process of creating an encrypted container on the flash drive. The hidden volume (an encrypted volume within a encrypted volume) is more security than I need. So I’ll create a standard volume. The volume location screen is asking for the name of the encrypted container to be created, and not an existing file to be created.
I pick AES encryption since it benchmarks with the best performance. The benchmarks are based on the current computer and will vary from PC to PC (or even on the same PC run at different times). I took the default AES selection.
I have the USB Flash drive formatted with the FAT file system (which is also the original format) for maximum compatibility across Windows, OS X and Linux. So I’m limited to a maximum container size of 4GB since the container is one file and FAT has a 4GB limit. I also enter a nice long phrase for the encryption password and accept the default FAT file system and cluster size. I spend some time moving the mouse around to generate some nice random keys. Once I click format the volume is quickly created.
The final screen in the Wizard lets me know all is well.
TrueCrypt Travel Disk
Since TrueCrypt 7 may not be on every PC I will use the USB flash drive in I want to create a Traveler install on the flash drive. This is done by selecting Tools –> Traveler Disk Setup from the menu. For the file location I entered in F: since that’s my USB flash drive. This does not mean the flash drive must always be mounted as F:, it’s simply where to install the TrueCrypt files. I don’t bother with the autorun options since I dislike any autorun.
The traveler files occupy less than 4MB on the flash drive and get installed into their own directory (F:TrueCrypt in my case).
Finally, when I want to mount the encrypted volume on the USB drive I run TrueCrypt.exe, select a drive letter to mount it on, enter the path to the volume file and click mount.
The encrypted files within the volume are now available just like any other drive. Since the file system is FAT, both on the USB stick and within the encrypted volume I can access the files on my Windows or Mac computers. Linux should work too.
TrueCrypt includes several features I’m not using since I want to keep things simple and I’m not concerned about someone making any effort to crack the encryption. But if my USB drive is lost or stolen, it won’t be easy for the thief to get to my files.
Installation was easy and straight-forward while usage is simple. The hardest part is typing in the passphrase. The longer it is, the more secure it is so mine exceeds two dozen characters and considering my lack of typing skills it’s not uncommon to need two tries.