Security

The Tornado Plus encrypted USB drive: Good idea, bad design

Not all encrypted drives are actually safe repositories for sensitive information -- even if a bunch of Internet articles point consumers and businesses in their direction. Here is just one example.

Not all encrypted drives are actually safe repositories for sensitive information -- even if a bunch of Internet articles point consumers and businesses in their direction. Here is just one example.

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Usually, I restrict my product reviews to solutions that I like. Solutions that I'm excited about. However, this week I'm going to move to the other end of the like-dislike continuum and discuss a product that  I believe is not only ineffective, but also has the potential to lull consumers and businesses into a false sense of security because of the way it's being marketed -- touted by not only the vendor but also by people who should know better.

The product is the Tornado Plus encrypted USB drive from Aluratek. Before I begin the story surrounding why I think this is a bad idea -- data leakage waiting to happen -- let's take a look at what I think is important in a drive encryption solution.

My (amazingly simple) drive encryption requirements

The first, and seemingly obvious requirement, is the use of a standard, vetted, encryption algorithm -- one that can't be easily cracked. Examples include AES and even 3DES. Second, keys must be protected. The key used to decrypt my drive should be protected from casual capture and hardened against cracking.

Finally, a less obvious requirement -- call me crazy -- is ensuring the vendor from whom I purchase the product actually understands encryption, drive security fundamentals, and their own technology.

There can be other concerns based on the kind of data stored, how its used, user types, etc. But these are the most basic requirements upon which everything else is built. If they are weak, everything else is a proverbial house of cards. This, I'm afraid, is the problem with the Tornado Plus drive.

What is the Tornado Plus?

The Tornado Plus concept is fantastic. When I read about it in one of my RSS feeds, I immediately went to Aluratek's site to get more information. The drive (shown in Figure 1) is USB attachable and hot pluggable/swappable. There's no need to worry about asking Windows for permission to disconnect. But the most innovative feature is the way users can quickly unlock an encrypted drive.

Tornado Plus drive with key fob

Figure 1: The Tornado Plus drive with key fob

With the Tornado Plus comes an RFID key fob. The fob's RFID chip contains the key used to access data on the drive. So instead of having to enter the key or log in every time, the user can simply bring the fob close to the drive and, voila, access.

Still excited, I search the site for information about how the RFID chip, the transmission of the key, and the encryption of the data were effected. I found nothing. So I decided to call Aluratek. This was where the fun, and my disillusionment, began.

The problem with the Tornado

My first discussion was with a sales guy. I asked about the encryption method. He didn't know. I asked about how the key was protected. Again, no idea. I began to suspect that this was not the person I needed to speak with, and I asked for a "technical" person. After a short wait, another sales guy got on the phone. He knew a little more. For example, the encryption method is to XOR the key with the data. Those of you in the security profession know my reaction to this news. For those of you still coming up to speed, XORing a key with data to encrypt sensitive information is bad. Very bad.

Although disappointed, I had enough interest left to ask about key management. The new sales guy had no idea. I was transferred to an "engineer." I should have known after having to explain to the engineer (we'll call him Anthony) why I thought key protection is important that I was still not speaking with someone with a good grasp of disk encryption. However, he didn't believe the key was encrypted on the RFID chip nor that the transmission of the key to the drive was protected. In other words, anyone with the key fob could access the encryption key. Also, the right equipment in the right place could intercept the key as it's transmitted to the drive.

Not to be deterred, I asked if he could check on these issues. This design seemed wrong somehow. Maybe the sales guys and Anthony just didn't understand the technology. Anthony said he would call me back.

After two weeks of phone tag, I'm still no closer to getting confirmation of what I was told than I was during my initial call. However, none of the voice mails Anthony left indicate there is much more to tell.

Why it's dangerous

Those of us who know better would never buy this drive, unless it was to store vacation pictures or information that was only slightly confidential -- and the drive never left my home or office. Others who see this as an easy-to-use approach to protecting data -- after all, lots of guys on the Internet are saying it's a good idea -- and don't know what questions to ask might just buy this solution. Encrypting their information on this drive does not provide sufficient protection for sensitive information that might be stolen or lost along with the device. But ease of use and low cost will attract many consumers and SMBs, lulling them into a false sense of security. But its not just consumers who have been taken in.

There are many stories on the Web about the release of the new version of this drive. One of them prompted me to investigate. However, very few journalists appear to have actually asked how the Tornado worked. Instead they quickly published glowing reports of this product. Based on what I found during a 10-minute phone conversation, some bloggers and other Internet pundits might want to check out new approaches to security management before sitting down at the keyboard.

The final word

The Tornado Plus fulfills none of my requirements. It uses weak, easily cracked, encryption. The key is not adequately protected, and the vendor's sales and support teams seem to know little about how the technology actually works. I strongly recommend against implementing the Tornado Plus drive to protect sensitive information. It's a great idea come to life in a bad design.

About

Tom is a security researcher for the InfoSec Institute and an IT professional with over 30 years of experience. He has written three books, Just Enough Security, Microsoft Virtualization, and Enterprise Security: A Practitioner's Guide (to be publish...

23 comments
WDMilner
WDMilner

For real drive encryption I'd recommend you check out the drive from Flagstone with on-board hardware crypto and the USB key-drives from Ironkey, also with on-board hardware crypto.

bperkins
bperkins

I'll take the other side. I am not carrying nuclear secrets on my drive. But I am carrying a resume and some other things I would not like folks to casually get into. For me this would be good enough security. The best security, of course, is not to leave the drive laying around where anyone else can get to it, right?

pcavlovic
pcavlovic

What are people using for secure removeable media (specifically, flash/thumb/USB drives)? We are looking for something user-friendly but secure.

mastertexan
mastertexan

I have virtually no experience with encription (with the exception of our wireless router) so I looked up XOR in Wikipedia and found this: "A simple XOR cipher is therefore sometimes used for hiding information in cases where no particular security is required" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simple_XOR_cipher Seems like the Tornado is just hiding...

david.robles
david.robles

Hey Tom, you didn't tell us how this data can be accessed without the key fob.

OldER Mycroft
OldER Mycroft

Who's gonna believe it'll protect a usb hard drive? The Beamer is at least a comfy drive! :D

seanferd
seanferd

with technology. While advertising as secure, the tech isn't really secure at all. It's getting ridiculous. (Well, it probably always was.)

ammar_zaatreh
ammar_zaatreh

XOR ???? and they call it encryption ? They sure have a different idea about security than I have. They probably weren't aiming to provide a really "Secure" drive with data encryption, they were trying to just make a practical drive that doesn't grant access to anyone without a key, for the typical user, this Door-Key approach is the common idea about information security, But still, calling this "Encryption" is a crime against Cryptography, really..

Lodai
Lodai

On the website it states that "With Aluratek?s RFID security Key encryption your data is kept ultra secure and may only be accessed by one of the two unique RFID security keys that ship with the unit." This to me sounds like the RFID key-fob just unlocks access to the drive itself. The contents of the drive are not encrypted at all. So what would prevent someone from walking off with the drive, cracking open the case, plugging the HD into their own system and accessing the data? Also there are 2 fob's. Say one is at work and one is at home. A malicious co-worker raids your desk after you have left, clones the fob (then replaces). That worker now has complete access to the drive.

bblackmoor
bblackmoor

This device is worse than merely "not good enough", because it adds a layer of inconvenience (to the intended user) on top of negligible security. You would be better off just naming your resume "doughnuts.odt", and not worry about needing to keep track of a key fob.

rbarnett
rbarnett

We put Credant's product on our corp. systems. It has an enterprise management console and a server to manage keys, uses AES256 (256 bits), has key recovery, and has a mobile application. This applies a key to the USB memory stic and prompts for a passwd when trying to read from it. Has central key recovery too. So far so good. Can do CD/DVD encrypt if using Nero's InCD.

Eternal
Eternal

Stealth MXP drives, the model we have has biometric (finger print scanner) and password abilities. However... we've set the password requirements to something nasty a user would never remember and as such we randomly generate said nasty passwords, and they rely solely on the finger print scanners. We also don't tell the password to the user, nor record it ourselves, it's really not needed, unless a user chops off their hand and their health care info is on said device. The finger print scanner has the ability to be setup during the IT end of the setup for how many points it looks for. The lowest is 4700 points if I remember correctly, and the "normal" setting we use is like 23,000 points. I didn't pick them one guy had a project to find the best encrypted drive he could. He bought a number of models/brands played with them all and this is what he found would work best for us. We use the enterprise software so if a staff member should burn there fingers, or heaven forbid loose a hand certain IT staff in the organization (I being one of the few) can get their data off the drive.

Cynyster
Cynyster

The best encryption tools I have found for use with a USB Drive whether is an actual hard drive or a memory stick is one of these two. TrueCrypt which is free or PGP. Both allow you to make a mountable "drive" from a truly encrypted file. The strength of that encryption is based on the length of your pass phrase. True crypt is very easy to use and it can be stored on the same physical drive as the encrypted file(drive).

tom
tom

As a company that offers security products it is important to know weaknesses and strengths. Sometimes the strengths will out weight the weaknesses and visa versa. We provide 128 bit level Password Protection for drives just as an added feature and something we really don't need to include. I know that there is stronger encryption protection available but is the "strongest" always the best or necessary? Our main product provides the ability to control the use of memory devices. This in many ways is as more important as protecting the information placed on the memory drives. The numbers of company's that don't even consider this source of data lose or perceive the theft of information using memory devices as something that is not even on their radar. I would be interested for myself as well as my customers of having my product critically reviewed. How can I go about having this done?

techrepublic@
techrepublic@

1 - Open "Tornado Plus" case; 2 - Take out HDD; 3 - Put HDD in "generic" USB box; 4 - Connect "generic" USB box to computer; 5 - Determine know data signatures (e.g. MBR, boot sector, file system) and their positions in HDD; 6 - XOR know signatures with data in HDD to determine parts of key; 7 - Compose key from parts of key determined in 6; if there is enough overlap between the parts composing the key is trivial, if not trial and error is required or use more signatures; 8 - Use key to unXOR the data; I'm assuming a basic/simple XOR scheme but if they are using XOR as an "encryption" method I would not be surprised if it worked.

ITSecurityGuy
ITSecurityGuy

that only allow 8 character alpha-numeric passwords to access their 128-bit SSL encrypted sites. Why bother requiring the customer to use a 128-bit capable browser, while denying them a password with any more than 47 bit strength?!?!? Or worse, requiring you to use your 4 digit numeric PIN. WOW! 13 bits of security!!! For the strength of an alpha-numeric password to match the 128 bit strength of the encryption, it must be at least 22 random characters in length. Of course, one could argue that the combination of username and password increase the access control, but how many people or systems conceal the username as carefully as they do the password? Often the username is well known or readily available, such as the account number at the bottom of every check you send off. This is nothing but an illusion of security! Whenever possible, I select a 22 to 32 character random alphanumeric codes for both UserID and PWD and manage them within an AES protected database, also behind a strong password. This encrypted DB and its application is further encrypted on an AES protected USB Key requiring two-factor authentication, including a strong password and a biometric match. I sleep well at night, not worrying about something like a Tornado.

gary
gary

...As normally the fob itself has an additional key hard coded into the device. I.e. if you clone the fob all the get is the encryption key it transmits and so part of it is still securely on the original fob. Transmission of the fob code should also be encrypted using the hardware key imprinted into both halves of the device.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

to give the illusion of security more then real security. Much like the little latch locks on big glass windows. Sure the window wont open, but you can jimmy them or break the glass and the house is wide open. Truecrypt on a flash drive is a better idea I think.

Beilstwh
Beilstwh

And of course, they would leave an easy back door into your data. Never use AES if you want to truly protect your info from everyone.

bfpower
bfpower

Exactly. Most people don't want security, they want to feel secure.

seanferd
seanferd

The standard was written by the government, the actual encryption was designed by Belgians, and accepted by the U.S.

zhenchyld
zhenchyld

Dude, learn something about encryption before you post next time.