The sudden demise of the encryption freeware TrueCrypt has left users and security experts to consider a couple of mysteries. First, what the heck happened to it? Second, and probably more important in the long term, where do the individuals and businesses that had been running TrueCrypt now go for their security needs?
On May 28, TrueCrypt’s official website began redirecting to a warning reading, “Using TrueCrypt is not secure as it may contain unfixed security issues.” A brief explanation followed, stating that development of TrueCrypt was killed in May following Microsoft’s termination of support for Windows XP. Then, in a curious choice for a team of open source developers, the remainder of the redirect page instructs users on how to migrate from TrueCrypt to BitLocker, Microsoft’s proprietary encryption product.
With the unknowns in this case set against the current backdrop of NSA scandals, reports of secret government requests for information issued to tech companies along with gag orders, and the pervasive sense that personal privacy is fading into an illusion, the TrueCrypt situation has been a perfect fuel for conspiracy theories -- and, really, who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory?
Consider the possibilities
Is TrueCrypt’s explanation of Microsoft's ending support for Windows XP sufficient? Newer versions of Windows do come with BitLocker or EFS (Encrypting File System) built-in, ostensibly reducing the need for additional software. However, neither of these is built-in with Windows “Home” Editions, and the explanation does nothing to address TrueCrypt’s coverage of Mac and Linux systems.
Could TrueCrypt’s seeming endorsement of BitLocker be evidence that Microsoft bought them off? Or was it government agents in black suits and dark shades who got to them? TrueCrypt was famously the encryption tool recommended by Edward Snowden. There is a list of known legal cases where the FBI and law enforcement desired to get past TrueCrypt encryption, and it could not be cracked. Did the NSA bring pressure upon TrueCrypt’s creators, compromising the software’s defenses? Is Lifetime already buying the rights to a made-for-TV movie?
Just too much work
There’s likely a simpler, less provocative explanation. After a decade of uncompensated labor, the team behind TrueCrypt may have just grown tired of building, hosting, and supporting the product for free. A crowd-funded code and penetration review of TrueCrypt supported by the Open Crypto Audit Project, although outwardly welcomed by the TrueCrypt team and positive in its first phase conclusions, may have caused team members to consider their project thankless. Or they may have simply accepted that BitLocker is sufficient protection for your average individual user and that it is now standard on a large enough share of Windows PCs to render their product no longer crucial enough to justify the effort.
Regardless of the truth behind the last days of TrueCrypt, the real question for users is what to do now. The answer will probably be different (and should be different) for individual and business applications. An individual owns the responsibility for his data. BitLocker and EFS come free as part of Windows on many PCs and are reasonably easy to turn on and off. For normal individual use, they do the job. Because Microsoft backs them, they have a guaranteed level of compatibility and longevity.
We would not recommend freeware encryption tools for exactly this reason: As with TrueCrypt, there are fewer guarantees that free tools will remain available and supported in the long term. In our opinion, the motivation, dedication, and responsibility to continue building and supporting software is severely diminished without profit motivation. There is a lot of encryption freeware available, but none more popular and well-respected than the now defunct TrueCrypt. The bottom line is that. In fact, using built-in tools is TrueCrypt’s final recommendation as well, and we agree when it comes to the security needs of an individual.
You get what you pay for
Businesses have more complex needs than individuals, and should look for more comprehensive security. Recent incidents with Target stores and the Heartbleed virus have proved how vulnerable and liable a business can be following a breach in data security. When choosing data encryption solutions, businesses should take a hard look at what they get for free versus what a small spend can provide.
More complex tools that aren’t shortcuts might make the most sense. Businesses need tools that enforce data security over their entire employee base. They need policy control capabilities: password requirements, lockouts, and key management. These tools must not encumber employee productivity and be easy for IT to manage and support. Mobile devices are a concern for businesses as well, and not only smartphones and tablets, but also USB devices, all holding sensitive and potentially damaging business data. Businesses may consider tools that can protect data in situations where encryption can’t: when a device is stolen with the power on, or when a contractor or employee is no longer in good standing.
As with individuals, we recommend that businesses seek solutions that use built-in encryption tools for their virtues of compatibility and longevity. However, more is required of a business-class tool. Top security tool providers recognize that supporting built-in encryption is much easier than attempting to incorporate encryption into an OS. Adding, supporting, and updating pre-boot processes and integrating with hardware is difficult. As the same time, Macs, iOS, and Android have built integrated encryption modules that can be leveraged by the right data security tools. Data can be remotely managed or wiped, and devices quarantined, taking the burden of data protection away from employees. These more robust business-class options, while more expensive than freeware, can amount to an immense savings. With data security solutions, you get what you pay for, and free can cost you.