BitLocker vs Third Party FDE

Like many organizations, we skipped Vista. So with Windows 7 we are facing the question “is Windows 7 good enough” or do we still need to pay for a third-party full disk encryption (FDE) product.

This question was asked back in 2006 at the SANS Desktop Encryption Summit. The FDE vender’s felt their product was better because:
1. Better Management tools
2. Mature product
3. Multiple OS support
4. No requirement for TPM.

BitLocker is no longer a first gen product. Let’s look at today’s reasons for purchasing or continuing to use a third-party FDE product.
BitLocker Minimum Requirements
“BitLocker stores its own encryption and decryption key in a hardware device that is separate from your hard disk, so you must have either a computer with a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) or a removable USB memory device.”
USB memory devices would tend to be stored in the laptop bag, so that isn’t a secure solution.
TPMs are an additional thing to manage. Perhaps it’s not as difficult as I envision. When I did a WAVE eval, I had to go into the BIOS to enable the TPM and set a master TPM password. That doesn’t scale.
“The computer must have been configured with an additional separate active partition to be used as a system partition.”
This extra step now happens automatically, so I don’t think that is a big deal.
“The BIOS must be compatible with TPM and/or support usb devices during computer startup”
It may be necessary to upgrade the BIOS. While probably not an issue on the newer computers we would be using, this could be an issue on upgrades in place.
None of these prerequisite requirements is particularly burdensome. However it leaves out one key minimum requirement: Vista or Windows 7 Enterprise. Our XP systems would still be on the current FDE product requiring two management methods.

OTHER BitLocker Considerations

1. Provable Encryption
With the current FDE product, if a computer is lost I would be able to tell that it was actually encrypted when it was last seen on $date $time. Can BitLocker say the same? I don’t know.
Many states have an encryption safe harbor. Meaning if the lost system was provably encrypted, breach notification provisions do not apply.
2. Usability
The current FDE product syncs the domain password to the pre-boot environment. The user does not need to know a second password. The normal password requirements apply.
With BitLocker the PIN is just that. An enhanced PIN can be required but it is possible that some system BIOS will not support alphanumeric entry in the pre-boot environment. Does this PIN ever expire? It doesn’t seem like it.
3. Recoverability
The standard recovery method is to use a recovery password. This is a 48 digit number backed up to Active Directory. Enjoy typing that in when the user forgets their password.
This method is not FIPS compliant and must be disabled. Instead there are other two options
A recovery key is a 256 bit key that is saved to a flash drive. This method must be done by the end-user and they need to store the key securely. Obviously that isn’t enterprise ready.
The third option is a data recovery agent. A public key is distributed to all BitLocker protected devices. Someone with the matching private key (e.g. me) would need to be physically present at the computer. Apparently even then the OS drive must be installed on another computer running Windows 7 as a data drive.
So basically no recovery options work for us.
4. Standby
BitLocker protection is in effect only when the computer is turned off or in hibernation.
Our current FDE product protects in standby, hibernation or when the computer is off.
Update:This is is no longer true.   a preboot authentication in standby is a false sense of security.
5. Enterprise Manageability
While BitLocker has caught up with third-party encryption products in its ability to encrypt USB drives there are still other areas where FDE vender’s shine. Many FDE vender’s can also encrypt phones and managed hardware based encryption products. It’s a lot more convenient to manage these devices through one vendor.
From my limited reading it seems that there are still a number of items that argue for the continued use of a non-Microsoft FDE product.


  1. Pingback: » GuardianEdge Windows 7 Looking Back - Roger's Information Security Blog

    • thanks.
      if you want to submit corrections you’re in the right place. I seem to make a lot of typos, even when using “after the deadline” for wordpress.

  2. Roger,
    Aside from concerns that relate to large deployments/large support scenarios, do you think bitlocker would work in small scale (five or less laptops) deployments? I’m mostly concerned with the quality of the encryption as opposed to the deployment/support factors and I don’t need more than 10 deployments so it makes it difficult to get pricing from the big vendors at that scale as well.


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