A simple solution you may want to consider for securing sensitive data or personal files is Authenex, Inc.’s A-Key with Secure Privacy 2.0 software. A-Key is a USB device that holds a password you designate to secure encrypted files. It works in conjunction with the Secure Privacy software to prevent others from opening personal documents or other files you want to protect. Without the USB key installed, your encrypted files cannot be accessed, and when it is installed, the correct password must be entered to open the files.

A-Key represents an effective, inexpensive, and easy means of protecting data from unauthorized access. It’s a viable security tool for individuals and SMBs who want to protect data at the file level through encryption.

Packing list and installation
The A-Key package (shown in Figure A) includes the A-Key itself, the Secure Privacy 2.0 software installation CD, and a 6-foot USB extension cable, which makes it easier to use the A-Key.

Figure A
A-Key package

In addition to the Secure Privacy software, the CD also includes Internet Explorer 6, which is a required component for using the software on Win98 systems.

You begin the setup of the product by first inserting the Secure Privacy 2.0 CD. If Autorun is enabled, the setup program will launch automatically. Win98 users with IE versions earlier than 6 will be prompted to update. Since IE 6 is included on the CD, the program will launch Windows Update to install IE 6.

Once the installation is complete, you will be prompted to insert the A-Key into an open USB port. The 6-foot extension cable reduces the hassle associated with hooking up USB ports located on the backs of machines. I found the longer cable to be quite convenient.

Apparently, inserting the A-Key isn’t a necessary step for the install. On a later install, I simply clicked OK on the window prompting me for the A-Key and rebooted the system, and the software installed without a problem. So beyond simply getting you ready for setting up your password, I’m not sure what purpose this step serves. The first time you run the program, you are prompted to insert the A-Key to set up the password anyway.

Important note

The password you create is permanently attached to the device and cannot be changed. Consider carefully and create a good, strong password because it will be what you use with the A-Key for the life of the product.

Also, documentation for the A-Key comes installed with the program in HTML format. It contains detailed instructions for setting up and using Secure Privacy 2.0.

Specs and requirements
The A-Key with Secure Privacy 2.0 is designed for Windows systems meeting the following specifications:

  • Microsoft® Windows® XP, 2000, Me, or 98
  • CD-ROM drive
  • 32-MB RAM
  • 10-MB free hard disk space
  • Pentium 100 MHz or higher processor
  • USB support
  • Internet access required for product updating and Exchange Dynamic Symmetric Key Infrastructure (EDSKI) exchange

A-Key specifications:

  • Built-in 16-KB Flash memory (not for storage)
  • 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) for next generation encryption technology
  • Complies with FIPS 140-1 Level 3
  • Password (PIN) length: 64 ASCII alphanumeric characters for key activation and secured data access, write only, cannot be overwritten
  • Key size: 50.75mm X 16.91mm X 7.55mm

Register the product
It’s very important that you register your A-Key because it enables some important features you may need later, including password recovery and A-Key replacement. If you don’t register your product and you forget your password or lose the A-Key, you will not be able to recover the password or the device and will be unable to open encrypted files.

You access the registration program from the Help menu inside the Secure Privacy application. During the registration and recovery settings process, you will be prompted to select a number of options, including whether to enable password recovery and A-Key file recovery. You must also enter five questions and the answers to them. Should you attempt to recover your password, these questions will be used to verify your identity.

Authenex confirms your selections via an automated e-mail.

Using A-Key
A-Key’s essential function is encrypting files you don’t want others to be able to access. You can encrypt the files in a number of ways:

  • Drag and drop them into the Secure Folder panel in the interface.
  • Right-click on the file in Windows Explorer and choose Encrypt.
  • Select the file in the left pane of the Windows Explorer interface and click the Encrypt button.

You can also either encrypt the file in its current location (or any location on your drives) or you can encrypt it to the Secure folder the application creates. When you choose to encrypt to the secure location, the file is moved from its current location. The advantage of encrypting files to the Secure folder is that anyone else using the machine won’t see your files. It also allows you to attach the items to EDSKI packages for sending to others via e-mail. You can only attach items located in the Secure folder to EDSKI packages.

When I attempted to access the Secure folder via Windows Explorer, the program shut down Explorer without allowing me to view the contents of the folder even when I was logged in to Secure Privacy. So the only way you can view the contents of the folder is from within the application itself. Moving files into the Secure folder prevents any action from being performed on them except through the interface. In the case of files that I encrypted in their current locations on my drive, I found that even though I couldn’t open them without the password, I could still delete them or move them around at will. Placing them in the Secure folder prevents any such actions.

What can’t or shouldn’t you encrypt? You can’t use Secure Privacy to encrypt applications—anything with the .exe extension. You also cannot encrypt folders. And for obvious reasons, you shouldn’t encrypt any Windows system files.

Secure Privacy’s file encryption/decryption is fairly intuitive. The easiest way to handle encryption is simply to drag and drop files into the Secure Folder pane of the program interface. One annoyance is that if the program is running and you right-click in Windows Explorer to encrypt a file, it prompts you to drag the file to the Secure folder. Figure B shows the Secure Privacy interface with the icons for its security features.

Figure B
Secure Privacy interface

Secure Privacy also allows you to create encrypted messages to send to other A-Key users. The advantage of this is that only the user you specify in the interface (by his A-Key ESN, a unique 8-digit number assigned to each A-Key) can read the message. EDSKI is a subscription service; you receive a one-year subscription to the service when you purchase A-Key with Secure Privacy 2.0. After the first year is up, the annual fee is $24.95.

You can send attachments—files must be in the Secure folder—or simply text messages. Only the user whose ESN is specified in the package can open the item. Decrypting the package requires a connection to the Internet and, presumably, a subscription to the EDSKI service. In my tests, I was unable to decrypt any of the test files I sent. Each time I attempted to decrypt an EDSKI package, I received an error message. This may have been because I had just registered the product and the information had not yet been processed.

Secure Delete
Secure Privacy also includes a Secure Delete feature that permanently deletes sensitive files that you don’t want others to be able to recover. The Secure Delete feature also prevents programs from being able to recover the files you’ve permanently deleted. Given the nature of this utility, you obviously need to exercise caution when using it.

Password Manager
The Password Manager allows you to organize the passwords for your various accounts. If you’re like most people, you have different passwords for many different accounts (e.g., e-mail, online shopping, electronic bill payment). Secure Privacy’s Password Manager offers you a means of managing up to 100 such accounts or passwords, and you can also store other sensitive data such as credit card and account numbers or personal information.

This system finally gives you a way to safely store account numbers and passwords that you might have trouble remembering. Instead of writing the information down where it’s not secure or keeping a spreadsheet, Secure Privacy encrypts the data so that only you can access it.

A potentially useful feature of Password Manager is that it allows you to drag and drop account information into other applications or Web sites. All you have to do is right-click on the ID in Password Manager and then drag it to the input field on the browser or application you need to complete. The user ID or password is automatically inserted in the field. Unfortunately, this is little more than a copy-and-paste job. But since you have the information stored securely in Password Manager, it’s a handy way to organize all your account IDs and passwords and to display that data on the screen when you need it.

A few quirks, but overall a solid tool
A-Key with Secure Privacy 2.0 is a solid tool for securing sensitive data. The interface is intuitive and the program is easy to use. Once you get used to some of the quirks—like not being able to right-click a file and encrypt it with the application open or having to close the program to open an EDSKI file—you’ll find that the package has a lot to offer and can be a good tool for protecting your data. The program might not be ideal for everyone, but those who have information that must be secure or those who work in a cooperative environment need an encryption utility like Secure Privacy.

It’s also an inexpensive solution. The package costs $49.95 and includes a one-year subscription to the EDSKI service. Authenex also ties the A-Key into promotions for other services. For more information on cost, check out this page on the Authenex site.