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Tested: Aegis Secure Key 3nxc is a great privacy-protecting USB-C key

The Aegis Secure Key 3ncx is designed to provide a solution to a problem that remains common even in today’s cloud-based world: balancing convenience with security when it comes to USB keys.

If we all lived in the always-connected, high-speed, cloud-based world, the ads would have us believe, USB keys would be as obsolete as floppy disks. The reality, however, is that they still have a role to play today …

USB keys remain useful

One of the main uses for a USB key is mobile backup. Most of us have decent backup setups when we’re at home or work, but less so when we’re mobile.

In my home office, for example, I have a permanently connected external drive for automated hourly Time Machine backups, and my working folders also sync to Dropbox. That passes the key test of “a file only exists if you have at least three copies, one of them off-site.” (I have additional backups of critical data.)

But in normal times, I also want a backup solution when away from home – whether that’s at a local coffee shop, on a plane, or in a hotel room. My Dropbox sync means I have a cloud copy if I have internet access, but I still prefer a third copy – and there are times (like on a plane) when I may not have usable internet.

A USB key is my preferred solution there. I have one on my keyring, so it’s always with me. For short pieces of work, I’ll wait until I’m finished and then copy the document to the USB key when I’m done; for more extensive work, I’ll make periodic backups as I go.

By default, there’s no security on an USB key: Anyone who steals or finds one has access to all the data on it. They are convenient, but not secure. That’s not an problem for my work, but it is a big issue for those who need to carry sensitive data and/or comply with legal requirements on data protection.

It is possible to encrypt documents before copying them to the key, but that adds an extra step. Some USB keys also allow software passcodes, which provide some degree of security, but not at a very high level.

Aegis Secure Key 3nxc

The Aegis Secure Key 3nxc is a different beast altogether. It has 100% hardware-based 256-bit AES XTS encryption (aka “military grade”) and also has FIPS 140-3 certification, aka Federal Information Processing Standards 140 Level 3. This means it is approved for storing sensitive US government or military data. In a nutshell, nobody short of a sophisticated nation state hacking team has any hope of accessing your data.

But the key achieves this without much in the way of inconvenience. You simply enter a PIN to unlock it, and once unlocked it works exactly like any other USB key.

The key is larger than most, at a little over three inches long by two-thirds of an inch wide and a third of an inch deep, but still sits on a keyring happily enough. There are three LEDs, a numeric keypad, and Lock and Unlock buttons. It comes with a rubber slide-on cover to protect the keypad when not in use.

Setup involves setting either one or two PINs: an admin and a user. Individuals need only an admin PIN, but I do like the fact that you could set up a user PIN for a non-techy family member – that means if they ever forget it, you can still use your admin PIN to restore their access to the data.

In use, you can insert the key first and then enter the PIN, but I find it much more convenient to do it the other way around:

  • Press the Unlock button
  • Enter your PIN (7-16 digits)
  • Press Unlock again

The green unlock LED indicates that it’s unlocked, and you then have 30 seconds to insert the key into your Mac before it automatically locks again. Once inserted, it remains unlocked until you either hit the Lock button or remove the key from your Mac.

It’s not fast, in part because 256-bit AES XTS encryption incurs a significant performance hit, which is why Apple defaults to the faster and weaker 128-bit version for FileVault.

But that’s not an issue in practice: The key is not intended for use as a working drive, and certainly not for anything demanding like video editing. This is a device for convenient and secure transporting of files.

Pricing and conclusions

The Aegis Secure Key 3nxc is available in a choice of six capacities, starting at 4GB for a very reasonable $55 – and maxing out at 128GB for $176.

That obviously makes it more expensive than a standard USB-C flash drive, but not dramatically so. If you need to carry any kind of sensitive data on a USB key, whether it’s a screenplay or a customer contacts database, this seems a no-brainer.

The Aegis Secure Key 3nxc is available from Amazon in 4GB, 8GB, 16GB, 32GB, 64GB and 128GB models.

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Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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