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Mobile encryption options for mobile devices: Built-in vs. manual encryption

There are a few different ways to approach mobile encryption. In this expert response, Peter Wood discusses the pros and cons of different mobile encryption options.

What are the advantages of built-in encryption on mobile devices vs. manual encryption? Is one a more secure method than the other?
It depends on what you mean by "built-in" versus "manual" mobile encryption methods. If manual encryption means relying on the user to encrypt data manually, then we are introducing a dependency on user behaviour. This definition of manual encryption, while quite common, is fraught with potential errors. For example, if a user is in a hurry or forgetful, he or she could fail to encrypt something, rendering efforts to protect mobile data useless.

By contrast, if "built-in" encryption methods mean properly configuring automatic encryption that comes included...

with the mobile device itself, it will tend to minimise human error in most cases. However, it should be noted that there are few true "built-in" encryption products: really only Microsoft BitLocker on newer Windows-based computers and some self-encrypting hard drives and USB sticks. Yet implementing full disk encryption with boot-time authentication on a laptop, for example, will offer good security with minimal user intervention. Hard disks and USB drives with built-in encryption also combine security with ease of use, which is a winning combination.

It's not about the quality of the encryption algorithm (assuming you are using a well-proven product) but about user education and authentication. Good quality passphrases (or two-factor authentication) coupled with a proven encryption product will offer the best possible data protection outcome.

This was first published in May 2010

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