Portable Security: A walking Fortress

In January, 2018 I wrote a couple of articles about the Aegis Secure Key 3z Flash Drive from Apricorn Inc.  At the time, I was extremely interested in its use as a Windows To Go (WTG) device, and in fact it tested very well for that task.  The fact that Microsoft has announced they have deprecated the feature (although it is still present as of Windows 10 v1909) does not take away from the fact that I gave the device a big thumbs up then, and I still give it a big thumbs up.

Aegis Fortress L3So when I was contacted by someone at Apricorn a couple of months ago to see if I wanted to test any other devices of theirs, I jumped at the opportunity.  They sent me the Aegis Fortress L3 – USB 3.1 / 3.2 Portable Drive, an ultra-rugged, super fast drive with hardware-based 256-bit AES XTS encryption. 

I have several external hard drives – from Seagate, Western Digital, and one branded HP.  They all serve their own purposes… and I have always relied on BitLocker to Go drive-level encryption to protect the contents.  I have larger factor (desktop) devices, as well as smaller, pocket-sized devices (3.5” disks vs. 2.5” disks).  Some are as small as 256GB, others as large as 4TB. 

All of these drives serve their purpose, and I have relied on them for those purposes for years.  However, and until now, they all have a couple of things in common: they are not secure (until I enable BitLocker), and they are all relatively fragile.  Don’t get me wrong… if you have one standing on its side and it falls over you should have nothing to worry about… but if it were to fall off your desk, you might be concerned about damage to the device.

The Aegis Fortress L3 eliminates those concerns.  The hardware encryption protects my data from being compromised if the device is stolen; yes, a thief would be able to re-format the drive and use it himself (as long as he had access to the Aegis Configurator tool), but they would not be able to access my data, which is what I really need to be protected.

The device is secured in an aircraft-grade aluminum alloy enclosure, which is then sealed closed with tamper resistant / evident uni-directional breakaway security fasteners which are driven and cemented in place with hardened epoxy.  If you don’t know what that all means, then let’s make it simple: you cannot take it apart and then put it back together again without someone knowing about it. 

As for ‘what happens if I drop it?’ the answer is:  The HDD models have a non-operating shock resistance up to 650G for 1ms, and 300G for 2ms if operating.  The SSD models feature 1500G/0.5ms | Virtually shock and vibration resistant.  That sounds pretty impressive as well, although I would still sooner not drop a hard drive to test its durability… not if I wanted to keep using the drive, anyways.

The drive has one thing that none of my other drives has… the keypad.  The hardware encryption requires a person to physically enter the code in order to use the device.  Otherwise it is useless.  If you are concerned about a brute-force attack, it is easy to configure a limit – enter the wrong PIN four times, and your drive is wiped forever.  The membrane-style keypad is rated to IP66 against water, dust and grit penetration, which means it can endure a lot of hardship.  While the drive is not waterproof, you can spill a cup of coffee on it without frying the keypad.  I do not recommend trying this… if for no other reason, one should never waste a perfectly good cup of coffee.

While the web site claims the drive is software-free, I am not sure that is really true; I needed the (included) Apricorn Configurator tool to configure the PINs, including the Administrator PIN, User PINs, and Recovery PINs.  I was also able to create a Self-Destruct PIN, which if entered would immediately wipe the drive.  I used the tool to configure the drive as Read/Write (although Read-Only is an option as well).  For extra security, you can configure Auto-Lock timeouts, so that if your drive is unused for a certain amount of time, it automatically locks. 

There are several sizes and configurations to choose from, with HDDs ranging from 500GB-5TB, and Solid-State Drives (SSDs) ranging from 500GB to 16TB.  My test unit is the 500GB SSD, and it is blazing fast… as long as you do not plug it into a legacy USB 2.0 port, which I did initially. 

The interface on the device is a Micro-B female connector, and included in the box were two 1’ cables (USB and USB-C).  They both allow for Super Speed 3.1 3.2 Type A and C.  As I discovered initially, the Type A connector allows backward connectivity with USB 2.0 and 1.1.  The data transfer rate is up to 5 Gbps (depending on your system port), and the device is powered 100% by the bus.  It has an 8MB buffer, with an average seek time of 12ms.  The weight depends on the configuration, ranging from 7.6oz for the <=4TB SSDs to 13.7oz for the >=4TB HDD models.

If you are worried that the included cables may be too short, rest assured that they are industry-standard, and I successfully tested the drive with 6’ cables that I had.  They also include a carrying case for the device, which will protect it from scratching the seemingly bullet-proof outer case.  It is a nice touch though, and I will use it when I travel.

While I run almost 100% Windows in my life, the drives are OS-agnostic, and work just as well with Mac and Linux.  Another advantage to the physical encryption that beats my BitLocker to Go solutions hands-down.  It eliminates my having to go scrounging for an unencrypted drive every time I want to transfer files to my girlfriend’s laptop. 

There are several approvals and certifications (FCC, CE | FIPS 140-2 Level 3 Pending), and even though some of them are listed on the product page as ‘Pending’, I suspect this may be someone neglecting to update a marketing sheet, as some of them are listed ‘Pending 3Q 2019.’  That just means that if you are in an industry that requires these levels, you should speak to someone at Apricorn before going forward.

While the Aegis Fortress L3 is more costly than an off-the-shelf drive, you certainly get what you pay for.  These are not drives that grandma will buy to back up her family snaps; if you require built-in encryption on a rugged device, the price tag is worth every penny… and those pennies are currently listed from:

500GB HDD: $239
500GB SSD (as tested for this article): $359.
5TB HDD: $499
16TB SSD: $9,999

(There are several other configurations available… these are the minimum and maximum sizes.  For more up to date pricing of specific configurations, visit the Product Page, or contact the company directly at (800) 458-5448.)

There is no question in my mind that I give this product a big thumbs up.  It performs brilliantly, it looks great, and I am happy to recommending it to you for all of your local and portable secure-storage needs.

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