This FireStarter is more of a real conversation starter than a definitive statement designed to rile everyone up.

Over the past couple months I’ve talked with a few organizations – some of them quite large – deploying full disk encryption for laptops but skipping the pre-boot environment.

For those of you who don’t know, nearly every full drive encryption product works by first booting up a mini-operating system. The user logs into this mini-OS, which then decrypts and loads the main operating system. This ensures that nothing is decrypted without the user’s credentials.

It can be a bit of a problem for installing software updates, because if the user isn’t logged in you can’t get to the operating system, and if you kick off a reboot after installing a patch it will stall at pre-boot. But every major product has ways to manage this. Typically they allow you to set a “log in once” flag to the pre-boot environment for software updates, but there are a couple others ways to deal with it. I consider this problem essentially solved, based on the user discussions I’ve had.

Another downside is that users need to log into pre-boot before the operating system. Some organizations deploy their FDE to require two logins, but many more synchronize the user’s Windows credentials to the pre-boot, then automatically log into Windows (or whatever OS is being protected). Both seem fine to me, and one of the differentiators between various encryption products is how well they handle user support, password changes, and other authentication issues in pre-boot.

But I’m now hearing of people deploying a FDE product without using pre-boot. Essentially (I think) they reverse the process I just described and automatically log into the pre-boot environment, then have the user log into Windows. I’m not talking about the tricky stuff a near-full-disk-encryption product like Credent uses, but skipping pre-boot altogether.

This seems fracking insane to me. You somewhat reduce the risk of a forensic evaluation of the drive, but lose most of the benefits of FDE.

In every case, the reason given is, “We don’t want to confuse our users.”

Am I missing something here? In my analysis this obviates most of the benefits of FDE, making it a big waste of cash.

Then again, let’s think about compliance. Most regulations say, “Thou shalt encrypt laptop drives.” Thus, this seems to tick the compliance checkbox, even if it’s a bad idea from a security perspective.

Also, realistically, the vast majority of lost drives don’t result in the compromise of data. I’m unaware of any non-targeted breach where a lost drive resulted in losses beyond the cost of dealing with breach reporting. I’m sure there have been some, but none that crossed my desk.