There is often a gap between the rate at which technology develops and the rate at which people and businesses adjust to it. The prevalence of identity theft and the large number of major data breaches suffered by businesses are examples of how we're still grappling with an increasingly networked and data-dependent economy. Telecommuting from home and working while on the road have become accepted practices, but unfortunately they have only heightened the risk of large-scale data loss.
Maxtor's BlackArmor offers road warriors, SMBs and political activists worried about the prying eyes of government spooks a storage solution that will protect their data in the event of, for example, a robbery. It will also be helpful if you're the kind of person who is always leaving stuff at the pub. It's an external hard drive that is very easy to use and very secure, and it's designed to prevent the embarrassing, costly and, for businesses and individuals both, sometimes devastating results of data-loss.
It is a 5400rpm, 320GB drive (298GB formatted, 297GB when the included software is taken into account) that offers "government-grade" AES encryption. A document by the US National Security Agency explains that the "design and strength of all key lengths of the AES algorithm (i.e., 128, 192 and 256) are sufficient to protect classified information up to the SECRET level" — so you know you're dealing with the real stuff here.
Based on the RRP, you will be paying $0.87 per gigabyte of available storage (for the 320GB model we tested; there is also a 160GB version). This price doesn't compare well to the cost per gigabyte of a conventional external hard such as Seagate's FreeAgent Desk. However, when you take BlackArmor's security features into account it offers exceptional value.
The drive is only 131mm long, 84mm wide and 16.5mm tall. It also weighs just 208 grams. This means it can comfortably fit into a decent-sized pocked or, more likely, slip into the side pocket of a laptop bag.
The drive connects via a USB port (the included cable is irritatingly short). The first time it is connected to a PC running Windows XP or Vista (no love for users of Linux, OS X or other operating systems unfortunately) you will be prompted to enter the 25 character ID label found on the base of the drive and select a password of 6-32 characters. We went with "swordfish", which the software pointed out was a "very weak" password (by contrast "swordfish879@1234" was rated as "very strong").
The software prompts you to create a password recovery question, warning that there is no other manner to recover a forgotten password. You are offered a selection of classic questions ("Where were you born?") as well as the chance to create your own question; you can also create a hint to help you answer the question. (We went with "What's a stupid password?" for our question, and "Crappy movie" for our hint — referring to the Travolta one, of course, not the Marx Brothers classic.)
Once the password is created you will have to use it to unlock the drive each time you connect it. If you don't unlock the drive, the only files you will be able to access are the software installation and help files: BlackArmor will show up as a 36.4MB drive with 0MB free space. You will also be able to reset the drive, losing access to any stored data — Maxtor points out that even professional data recovery services will be unable to help. This will let a business internally redeploy the drive without worrying about what data may be left on it — when you delete all the data off a drive or even format it in the conventional manner, chances are the data will still be recoverable.
If the drive is unlocked and you rip the USB cord out then the drive will be locked when you reconnect it. If the drive is unlocked and you reboot your computer then you will not need to enter your password before getting access to your data.
Although BlackArmor is probably the easiest to use and most secure storage device on the market, it suffers from a common flaw of commercial security solutions: it is a closed-source implementation of AES encryption, so it is exempt from the kind of community auditing that open source encryption can benefit from (on the flipside it has the closed source benefit of people not being able to spot exploits quite so easily...).
That being said, BlackArmor is still an extremely appealing solution for SMBs: this hardware/software combo is far easier than fiddling round with software-only encryption. The drive will be useful for small businesses that need to back up sensitive data but can't afford enterprise-level solutions, or those that need to transfer important information via ye olde sneakernet. BlackArmor will also let people work while away from the office without recklessly endangering sensitive data. Included software aids with backups and file synchronisation. The drive managed a write speed of about 60.6 megabytes per second, which means backing up your sensitive files shouldn't take too long.
For anyone who cares about how their storage devices look (and LaCie is still making money so it's a reasonable assumption at least some people do) BlackArmor has an attractive black and silver case with two blue lights (one for drive activity and the other for security — it will light up if the drive is unlocked).