August 5, 2008

Mobile Armor to Launch Flash Drives That Offers Greater Security

By Christopher Boyce, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Aug. 5--As electronic data becomes increasingly portable, the risks in transporting storage devices have grown.

Experts say universal serial bus, or USB, flash drives -- a lighter-sized memory storage device -- can be lost as easily as less-valuable, pocket-sized items, such as pens and packs of gum.

The trend recently spurred a technology company in Town and Country to develop a way for businesses and individuals to protect sensitive data that might be compromised when a USB flash drive is lost.

Mobile Armor Inc. and IronKey Inc. of Los Altos, Calif., soon will release their co-developed Mobile Armor KeyArmor USB flash drive that is designed to be tamper-proof and controlled from a remote location, said Robert Grupe, head of product management for Mobile Armor.

Mobile Armor, which employs about 50 people, designed KeyArmor's administration system to allow business users to remotely block unauthorized users. Many competing flash drives only offer pre-installed encryption software to safeguard data.

Before data stored on a KeyArmor flash drive can be accessed, the user must provide a password or other credentials, such as a 'smart' card or a thumbprint scanner.

Administrators can set the device to lock up if an incorrect password is entered even one time, said Grupe. The flash drive would remain locked until it was connected to a remote administrative computer via the Internet.

Businesses also can configure the device so the data it carries can only be accessed if the flash-drive regularly checks in with the administrative computer. Think of being able to remotely stop the engine of your teenager's car if he or she doesn't call after the movie.

Administrators also can choose to either lock or erase the drive through the remote connection.

The KeyArmor flash drive will be available by the end of September.

The release comes at a time when many disk manufacturers are stepping up efforts to improve security on flash drives, according to William Burr, manager of the security technology group at the federal technology National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md.

Though unfamiliar with the KeyArmor flash drive, Burr said there is plenty of interest in the kinds of security options that the product promises.

"It seems like the whole area has gotten hot in the last year," he said about securing data on USB flash drives. "At the moment there's not much out there that is broadly accepted and everybody's doing."

While there is no precise figure to the number of flash drives lost, Grupe said the devices are likely being lost more often than laptops -- which also are misplaced with increasing frequency.

At airports alone, more than 12,000 laptops per week are reported lost, stolen or missing, according to a recent study released by Dell Inc. and the Ponemon Institute LLC in Traverse City, Mich. Only 33 percent are ever recovered, the report said.

Just last week, St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch Cos. reported the theft of laptops containing personal information of an undisclosed number of current and former employees. The brewer said the laptops were password-protected and the information was encrypted, and that there is no evidence the theft resulted in unauthorized disclosures.

Along with internal threats, lost devices are one of the two most common threats to sensitive business data, said Jim Thompson, special agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's St. Louis office. Thompson works, in part, with InfraGard, an FBI partnership with businesses to help safeguard sensitive data.

If cost does inspire responsibility, users may treat the KeyArmor differently. Grupe said a single unit with two gigabytes of storage will cost about $130, roughly 10 times more expensive than the cheapest two-gigabyte flash drive currently available. But he expects most customers will be businesses making bulk orders, which will lower the unit price.

For careless users, the device offers a bonus. It's designed with a rugged encasing that can withstand being run over by a car, dropped from buildings and immersed in water, Grupe said.

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