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Secure tamper-resistant flash drive

Ironkey™ is a secure tamper-resistant USB memory stick with built-in military-grade encryption, developed between 2005 and 2007 by Dave Jevans and Gil Spencer of IronKey Inc. and marketed from 2011 onwards by Imation in Minnesota (USA). It is currently sold by Kingston Digital under the IronKey™ brand name. IronKey drives are water-proof, tamper-proof and password protected. Any attempt to gain unauthorised access to the data will initiate a self-destruct sequence.

IronKey USB drives are compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems, in a variety of storage capacities. The user's data stored in the device's flash memory is protected by strong military-grade AES CBC-Mode 1 encryption, for which the user can configure the password. This password is needed to retrieve the data later.

The data is protected against password attacks. Entering the wrong password 10 consecutive times, causes the device to self-destruct. Any physical tampering with the device will trigger the internal self-destruct sequence immediately.
IronKey with protective cap removed

Once destroyed, the device can never be used again and there is no way to retrieve the data that was once stored on it. This makes it virtually impossible to retrieve data from an accidentally lost IronKey USB stick. Because of the strong AES encryption and the military-grade tamper-resistant featues, IronKey has been approved by many countries for storing sensitive governmental and military material, in some cases up to the level of TOP SECRET. Within NATO, IronKey is approved for NATO Restricted and is strongly promoted for storing data and running operating systems [3].

IronKey is heavily used by governments, but it is also available to the general public, for example via auction sites like eBay. Although it is very secure, there is some level of software interaction with the computer, which means that it can only be used on supported operating systems.

  1. CBC = Block Cipher Chaining.

IronK USB stick
IronKey with protective cap removed
IronKey ready for operation
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IronK USB stick
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IronKey with protective cap removed
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IronKey ready for operation

  • Basic
  • Personal
  • Enterprise
IronKey was originally developed and marketed by IronKey Inc. (later: Marble Security Inc.), an independent venture-funded company, established in 2005 by Dave Jevans and Gil Spencer. In the preceeding years, the two men had become increasingly concerned about potential threat vectors to corporate security, and had noticed that the frequent loss by government officials of data stored on USB sticks had become one of the greatest security risks.

In 2005, IronKey received a US$ 1.4 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security for the development of a solution. In December 2006, they managed to secure another US$ 6 million from LeapFrog Ventures and individual investors [4]. The first IronKey devices were released in 2007, followed by S200 models in 2009.

In October 2011, the IronKey technology was acquired by Imation, the former storage division of the multi­national 3M 1 conglomerate, that had been separated-off in 1996. The IronKey name was kept as trademark and the devices were the first USB sticks to be approved for data storage up to TOP SECRET level. In 2012, the former IronKey Inc. changed its name to Marble Security [5].

On 8 February 2016, Kingston Digital announced that they had taken over the IronKey technology from Imation [1]. Kingston Digital is part of Kingston Technology Corporation. On 10 February 2017 it was announced that Imation had changed its name to GlassBridge Enterprises, Inc.

  1. Formerly known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, 3M is now a multinational technology conglomerate corporation, based in Maplewood (Minnesota, USA).  Wikipedia

As the IronKey is physically protected against opening it, it will be very difficult to show the PCB that is housed inside the metal enclosure, without damaging the device. Although some people have attempted to do this, no one has so far been able to disassemble the device without loosing its data. For this reason we are showing here an old image that was used by Imation in 2010.

In the leftmost image, the PCB is clearly visible. The two chips at the lower half are the actual flash memory devices in which the sensitive data is stored. The small rectanglular chip at the upper half is the actual encryption unit that provides 256-bit AES encryption at all times. The encryption can not be turned off or bypassed. This chip also holds the physical USB interface.

The USB interface is implemented as a double USB device: (1) a Mass Storage Device that holds an unmounted drive, and (2) a Human Interface Device (HID) that is used for controlling the features, such as mounting the drive and entering the password. The reason that HID is used for this, is because support for it is readily available on most modern operating systems. As the HID-class has no native provisions for controlling secure media, it is controlled though the audio control buttons and LEDs (play, stop, next, etc.) of a virtual (audio) device.

In this clip, YouTube user davinci team shows us what is inside the IronKey enclosure. Removing the outer case shell, reveals a Printed Circuit Board (PCB) that is cast in epoxy. According to him, the epoxy was removed later with a Weller WQB2000 rework station, after which the PCB still worked fine. However, as he does not show any evidence of this, it is very likely to be a hoax.

Operating systems
The IronKey support the following operating systems:

  • Windows 2000 SP4
  • Windows XP
  • Windows Vista
  • Mac OS 10.4
    Linux 2.6
Similar products
  1. Ironkey, Kingston Digital Acquires USB Technology and Assets of IronKey from Imation
    8 February 2016. Corporate press release.

  2. Imation, History
    Retrieved October 2016. 1

  3. NATO, IronKey™ Enterprise S250 and D250 Encrypted Flash Drives
    Retrieved November 2016.

  4. Tomio Gernon, Something Ventured: Uncle Sam is Staking Start-ups
    VentureWire. 12 March 2008.

  5. Wikipedia, IronKey
    Retrieved April 2017.
  1. Website no longer available from February 2017 onwards, after Imation became Glassbridge Enterprises Inc. Last snapshot available via Wayback Machine.

Further information
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Crypto Museum. Created: Tuesday 21 February 2017. Last changed: Saturday, 24 February 2018 - 11:54 CET.
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