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Windows 8 for Business : Disk Encryption - EFS, BitLocker and BitLocker To Go

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4/18/2014 9:52:01 PM

Windows 8 supports a number of disk encryption technologies, which prevents thieves from accessing sensitive data should your computer be physically stolen: If the thief removes your hard drive and attaches it to a different computer, any encrypted files cannot be read even if the thief figures out a way to access the hard drive’s filesystem. There are two major technologies at play here: the older Encrypting File System, or EFS, and BitLocker, a more modern and easily managed system.


When files are copied or moved out of an encrypted folder, the encryption is retained unless you move them to a location where encryption is not supported, such as to another machine on your home network.

EFS, while still available in Windows 8, has been somewhat deprecated. It was created as a way to encrypt individual files or, more commonly, a folder. With the latter approach, encryption works for both new files as well as those that were present when the folder was encrypted. That is, as you add new files to the encrypted folder, those files are automatically encrypted.

To encrypt a folder with EFS, right-click it and choose Properties from the menu that appears. Then, in the Properties window that appears, click the Advanced button. In the Advanced Attributes window shown in Figure 1, select the option titled Encrypt contents to secure data.

Figure 1: Encrypting an individual file or folder is easy and generally quite fast.


When you click OK (or Apply), you’ll be asked to make the change to the folder only (which includes all of its contained files) or to the folder and any of its subfolders and their contents. Windows will encrypt the appropriate items and immediately suggest that you back up your encryption certificate and key, which is required for recovery should you try to access the folder contents later via a different PC or future reinstall of Windows. Microsoft recommends backing these items up to removable media. But we’d go a step further and make copies in multiple places, including cloud storage like SkyDrive.

Encrypted folders are easily identified later: When you open an encrypted folder, you’ll see that all of the enclosed files have a green (rather than black) filename. This is a visual indicator that they’re encrypted.

BitLocker and BitLocker To Go

EFS is good for what it is, but it has a few limitations. First, it’s ponderous to encrypt an entire hard disk with this technology since it only works with individual folders and files; a set-it-and-forget-it whole-disk encryption makes more sense. And second, EFS only provides software-based encryption services. A technology that integrates with on-PC security chipsets would be far more difficult, impossible really, to crack. And finally, EFS encryption sticks with files as they travel around. It would be nice if the encryption was automatically removed if a file was copied or moved from an EFS-protected folder.

Enter BitLocker and its baby brother, BitLocker To Go. They’re both managed from the same control panel, but use slightly different technologies under the hood. From a usability perspective, BitLocker is used with fixed disks—those disks mounted inside your computer—while BitLocker To Go serves the needs of external, removable disks.

Like EFS, BitLocker enables you to encrypt data on your hard drive to protect it in the event of physical theft. But BitLocker offers a few unique twists:

  • BitLocker is full-disk encryption, not per-file or folder encryption. If you enable BitLocker on a disk, it encrypts the entire hard disk, and all future files that are added to that drive are silently encrypted as well.
  • BitLocker can also provide full-disk encryption services to both system and non-system partitions, so in addition to encrypting the entire hard disk on which Windows 8 is installed, you can encrypt any other partitions, too.
  • BitLocker protects vital Windows system files during boot-up: If BitLocker discovers a security risk, such as a change to any startup files (which might indicate that the hard drive was stolen and placed in a different machine), it will lock the system until you enter your BitLocker recovery key or password (discussed shortly).
  • BitLocker works in conjunction with Trusted Platform Module (TPM) security hardware in some PCs to provide a more secure solution than is possible with a software-only encryption routine. No hacker will defeat a BitLocker-protected hard disk.
  • Files copied or moved from a BitLocker-protected disk are automatically decrypted as part of the copy or move procedure.

There isn’t a heck of a lot to configure for BitLocker. It’s either on or it’s not, and you either have TPM hardware or you don’t: If your system does have TPM hardware, BitLocker will use it.

To unlock a BitLocker-protected disk, you must use a recovery key. This key can take different forms, including a password or smartcard PIN. BitLocker-protected disks can be configured to auto-unlock when you sign in to Windows, which is the recommended approach for day-to-day use.

BitLocker is generally a seamless experience, with one exception: Some software installs are blocked when BitLocker is enabled on your disk. For this reason, you can temporarily suspend BitLocker, install the software, and then re-enable BitLocker.

WARNING If you lose your recovery key—forget the password or smartcard PIN, for example—it’s game over. There is literally no other recovery option available. Microsoft Support can’t help you.

Not scared off?

To enable BitLocker, launch the BitLocker Drive Encryption control panel (as always, Start Search is your friend). Shown in Figure 2, BitLocker is straightforward.

You can’t use any old password: It must meet certain minimum length and complexity requirements, which could be set by corporate policy.

To enable BitLocker (or BitLocker To Go), simply click the Turn on BitLocker option next to the appropriate disk. The BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard will step you through the process of encrypting the disk and creating a recovery key, which can be a standard password or smartcard with PIN.

We recommend you do all three. (Be sure to keep the printed copy secure, in a safe perhaps.)

The wizard will also ask whether you’d like to back up the recovery key, which is certainly desirable. You can save to SkyDrive, to a file, or print the recovery key.

Once this is complete, the wizard will present two options, new to Windows 8, for encrypting the disk: It can encrypt the entire disk, including the empty space, which is slower, or just encrypt the used disk space, which is faster and perfectly acceptable for unused disks.

Figure 2: BitLocker and BitLocker To Go utilize the same configuration interface.


Encrypting an entire fixed disk can be a very time-consuming process. In fact, you may want to do this overnight, though the process doesn’t impact your ability to use the disk.

When the encryption is complete, you’ll see that the disk appears different in both Explorer, as shown in Figure 3, and in the BitLocker Drive Encryption control panel.

Figure 3: BitLocker-protected disks are visually differentiated and now provide other options.


They also have some new options in the control panel. These include the following:

  • Back up recovery key: While the BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard won’t complete without ensuring that you back up your recovery key in some fashion, you can back it up again at any time.
  • Add or Change password: If you’re using a password, you can change the password at any time. Or, if you’re using a smartcard PIN, you can add a password as a second way to enter the recovery key.
  • Remove password: You can remove the password if you’ve separately configured a smartcard PIN.
  • Add or Change smartcard: If you’re using a smartcard PIN, you can change the PIN at any time. Or, if you’re using a password, you can add a smartcard PIN as a second way to enter the recovery key.
  • Turn on (or off) auto-unlock: By default, BitLocker-protected disks will prompt you for a password (or PIN) each time you sign in to Windows or, in the case of an external, removable disk, when you plug the drive into the PC. The password entry interface can be seen in Figure 4. You can use the Automatically unlock on this PC option, found under More options, to disable this tiresome requirement.
  • Turn off BitLocker: If you’d like to remove BitLocker encryption from a disk, this option will reverse the process.

Figure 4: By default, BitLocker-protected disks require you to enter a password or PIN each time they’re first accessed.


Encryption in Windows RT

BitLocker and BitLocker To Go are available only in Windows 8 Pro. But Windows RT, the ARM-based version of Windows 8 that’s included with Windows devices, includes a feature called drive encryption, which is on by default and functions somewhat similarly to BitLocker. Why include this feature in Windows RT? These devices are managed with a technology called Exchange ActiveSync (EAS), which uses policies to ensure that compatible devices—which include iPhones, iPads, Android devices, Windows Phones, and now Windows RT devices—meet the basic security rules of your organization. And one of the policies it can set includes device encryption. Without this security feature, many corporations wouldn’t allow users to access corporate resources.

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