Author: Bob Ryan
Review Date: 9/2/2004

An external hard disk drive offers SMBs a convenient, portable way to store or back up crucial files. Of course, that very portability presents a problem: How can you secure such a readily available device from people who would accidentally or purposefully try to access its contents? MicroSolutions put the answer on the tip of your fingers.

The LockBox is an external USB (2.0 and 1.1) hard disk drive with a built-in fingerprint scanner. Available in 80-, 120-, and 200GB capacities (contact MicroSolutions for information about higher-capacity drives), the LockBox lets you control access to its contents by enrolling the fingerprints of employees authorized to use it. If the LockBox software can’t match a fingerprint with an authorized one, it denies access to the drive.

Ten-Minute Setup
A long time ago I bought my first CD-RW drive — a parallel port Backpack — from MicroSolutions and appreciated the simple setup procedure. The LockBox continues the company’s tradition of easy-to-use technology solutions.

After installing the drive’s CD software, it took less than five minutes to configure the drive to recognize me as the drive administrator. A few minutes later, I had a secure, portable hard drive.

The first time the LockBox software runs, it asks you to set up the administrator account by creating a username and password. Next, you scan your fingerprint, and the drive associates this print with the administrator.

It asks for multiple scans (I had to perform between four and seven each time I registered a fingerprint) so it can recognize prints even when your finger isn’t aligned perfectly on the scanner. It also scans two fingers per person just in case an injury prevents you from scanning a finger. Each scan takes about one second to complete.

Further along in the step-by-step process, you’re asked to indicate the number and sizes of the partitions you’d like on the drive — you can have up to seven. By default, the first partition is public and available to all users.

A simple slider interface lets you easily divvy up the drive. (Note that if you later decided to change the number and/or sizes of the partitions, you’ll have to wipe out the drive and start from scratch.)

When setup is complete, you’ll see a LockBox icon in your System Tray that indicates whether the drive is locked and also gives you access to various utilities. Scan your fingerprint to unlock the drive. Use the icon to lock it.

User Management
While LockBox is a great way to secure your data, it’s also an excellent solution when more than one person (up to eight) share computer access, and you want to provide private disk space or to limit access to certain files to certain people.

For example, if you have three employees sharing a computer you can give two of them access to one set of data, all three access to another, and so on; all without having to deal with the Windows security system.

Setting up new users is a snap, as is assigning them permissions to specific partitions. The LockBox administrator creates an account and has each authorized person scan his or her print.

The administrator then uses a simple point-and-click interface to select which partitions each person can access. I don’t see how it could be any easier.

On the Go
In all tests the LockBox performed flawlessly — granting access to authorized users and denying access to others. It is as fast as you’d expect a 7200 rpm external USB 2.0 hard disk to be; the fingerprint security didn’t have an impact of performance.

You can also move the LockBox from one computer to another while retaining all authorized enrollees. Note: you must be a Windows administrator on any computer you attach the LockBox to.

However, the administrator needs to enable enrollees (other than the LockBox administrator) when the drive is moved to another computer.

As a portable security solution, therefore, the LockBox works best for a single user. In multiple-user mode it works best on a single machine.

At $199 MSRP for the 80GB version the LockBox costs about $50 more than comparable USB 2.0 drives that don’t come with its fingerprint-security system — a reasonable premium for the security the LockBox provides.

And just in case you’re wondering, if someone removes the LockBox drive from its enclosure and sets it up as a secondary internal IDE drive, your data stays safe. A computer won’t recognize the drive, and its contents remain unavailable.

Pricing and Compatability

  • 80 GB: $199
  • 120GB: $249
  • 200GB: $299
  • Windows 98, Me, 2000, and XP (works fine with XP SP2)

Bob Ryan works in IT in higher education. He has been writing about technology for over 20 years, including editorial stints at inCider, BYTE, and FamilyPC.