(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)
Back in the mid-1990s, the successful fight for the right to use strong encryption seemed hugely significant. Some of us believed that within just a few years, all emails would be encrypted, and no one would be able to snoop on anything. (Of course, this would have interfered with the evolution of Gmail, since Google scans messages to create its context-sensitive ads.)
Strong encryption from trusted sources such as PGP and TrueCrypt has been available free for more than a decade, now, yet people seem to find that installing it and using it is just complicated enough to be a disincentive. In any case, many people seem to feel that they'll never be hassled, even while grandmothers are hauled into court for copyright infringement and federal agencies gain increasing power to monitor just about anything.
Well, at least there's no excuse anymore not to encrypt external hard drives. (Note, I'm not an expert on this stuff, just a consumer, and there may be other products that I don't know about.) Maxtor's BlackArmor series has strong encryption built into hardware, so that all data is automatically protected as you save it. As soon as power is disconnected from the drive, it secures itself. Now you don't have to worry if you travel with sensitive corporate data (or other embarrassing materials) and you leave an external storage device behind in an airport or hotel room.
This system is password-activated, not fingerprint-activated. I dislike the idea of fingerprint scanning, because I do a lot of shop work, and have been known to cut a finger. I'd hate to be locked out of my hard drive by a band-aid.
The Aegis Vault is another hardware-encrypted USB drive, but I had difficulty installing and using it. Maxtor's system seems better thought out to me, and its 320 GB version retails for less than $150. This means I can carry with me every piece of text that I have ever written, every email that I have ever sent or received, and every photograph that I have created during the past 15 years, without worrying about someone digging into all that stuff if I leave it lying around.
In fact I have moved all my personal data off the internal hard drive in my laptop computer, onto a pair of BlackArmor drives (for redundancy). I normally keep the drives at separate locations, in case of fire or theft. The only problem I've had is that if I try to run both drives simultaneously to do incremental backups from one to the other, the bundled software doesn't support this. Still, my favorite primitive backup software, Xxcopy, handles it without any problems.
Of course you do suffer a speed penalty when saving to a USB device, but far less than I expected.