BeCrypt's DISK Protect is a hard drive encryption product. It's a neat idea and uses AES encryption to encode every smidgin of data on your hard drive.

To make sure that it can't be bypassed by determined hackers it operates at the lowest of the low levels of Windows. As soon as you boot up a system with DISK Protect installed you have to put in a password. Three attempts are allowed after which the disk is locked. If you haven't got access to the included challenge:response system then that's it. The disk contents are lost. The key that they were encoded with, a sixteen character string you decide upon, is lost. The disk contents are gone forever.

This is as it should be in a sense. If you can readily recover from a password loss then, clearly, DISK Protect is not offering such strong protection as it should be. It means a hacker could get through DISK Protect's defences. So it is a good that that they can't, but it does place more responsibility on BeCrypt to supply well-tested software and deal with bugs appropriately.

I installed the software in a notebook computer. Installation instructions for using the supplied CD were clear and we input a password, verified it, and then input a 16-character encryption key. The system was re-booted to complete the installation and a padlock icon appeared in the system tray (of our Windows XP SP2 system). Nothing then happens until you reboot again.

At this point you input the password at a very early stage in the boot process. It's noticeable that you use a DOS-type user interface for this; it happens a long way before Windows gets started in the boot process. Then, once the password has been verified, Windows starts up and DISK Protect starts doing its work.

It reads every sector of the disk and encrypts its contents. This happens in the background and is akin to running a virus check on your hard drive's contents. It can take several hours, depending clearly on the size of the hard drive and the amount of data on it.

However, here I encountered a bug. The product reacted badly to finding bad sectors on the drive. Such bad sectors are not an infrequent problem. Okay; we expect bugs now and again. But not like this one. It was catastrophic. According to BeCrypt's support department, readily and quickly reached by phone, the software had corrupted the hard drive's partition data. The system had stopped operating and was hanging. It meant everything on the hard drive was unreadable.

There was no problem with data; everything had been backed up as per the installation instructions. However, there was a problem with applications and with Windows. The notebook would not boot to completion. It would boot to the point where you entered the DISK Protect password but them stop. There was no way to start the recovery process, ie, reformatting the hard drive and reinstalling Windows from the supplier's CD - because the low level at which DISK Protect operates precludes it.

So it was a very severe bug, it had trashed the hard drive. No matter: these things happen. BeCrypt, the software supplier, would take a reasonable and responsible attitude and see to it that the notebook hard drive was re-formatted and the basic Windows O/S re-installed.

But it didn't take that attitude. In effect I was a small customer and I was on my own as far as making arrangements to re-format the hard drive, reinstall all the software and restore lost data.

In the circumstances of BeCrypt's software operating at such a deep level in Windows, a level at which bugs can destroy hard drives and system functioning, then I don't think this is acceptable. People should not be left in the lurch and abandoned.

There is another aspect to this. It centres on the deep level at which the software operates again. Because of this the software should be checked for faults more rigorously than general application software. The supplied software hadn't been checked sufficiently in my view. Apparently there is a new version of DISK Protect which fixes this particular bug. It doesn't mean though, that there aren't more undiscovered bugs waiting to catch users out.

My opinion is that DISK Protect is unreliable software from an unreliable supplier.

OUR VERDICT

If you need to protect sensitive information on a computer's hard drive or removable media then encrypting its contents is a good idea. Not with this product or supplier though. Its attitude leaves questions to be answered.