Before you put all of your files on a wireless external hard drive, wouldn’t you like to know that they were secure—that a hacker couldn’t just drive by your house or office and copy off anything he wanted? Here’s what you need to know.

Wireless External Hard Drives As Secure As Your Network

What kind of encryption does your home or office wireless network use? If it’s no encryption, then hackers can read the contents of your files as you transfer them from your wireless external hard drive to your computer.

If you use WEP encryption, which is the older wireless encryption standard, then hackers will have to sit outside your house for at least a few minutes before they can start to access your files, but they’ll still be able to get to them.

If you use the current standard encryption, WPA, your files will remain secure to remote hackers (unless you foolishly give them the password to your network). Therefore it is up to you to improve your network security to ensure your wireless external hard drive is secure.

How Hackers Can Still Access Your Wireless External Hard Drive

Unfortunately, hackers don’t necessarily need to wirelessly access your hard drive to get to your files—they can get to them the old-fashioned way by stealing your hard drive.

You may think this is rare, but a wireless external hard drive just sits in the same place all the time, unlike your portable laptop, and it’s much smaller than a full desktop computer, so it’s easier to steal.

You can protect your wireless external hard drive by putting it somewhere that’s not immediately visible to thieves. (That’s a nice advantage of it being wireless.) But even if your drive gets stolen, there’s a way to protect your data.

Many higher-end wireless external hard drives come with the option to encrypt the disk with a password. Without this password the thief won’t be able to access your files even if he has your hard drive connected directly to his computer.

There are two downsides of an encrypted hard drive. The first is that you’ll need to enter the password from your computer every time you power on the drive. This can be somewhat mitigated by using software on your computer which remembers the password for you and automatically enters it—but using password automation software means someone can access the drive by stealing both the drive and your computer.

The other disadvantage of an encrypted hard drive is that if you forget the password, you’ll lose access to all of your files and nobody will be able to decrypt the hard drive for you.

Is a Normal External Hard Drive Safer?

Not really. Just think about it. You might leave your external hard drive connected to your computer, that is unfortunately part of an unsecured network, open for hackers to invade. Again the hacker may physically remove your external hard drive and then access your files that way.

The same network security threats apply either way.

But if you want to store confidential files, I can only recommend that you use both WPA wireless security and full-disk encryption to keep safe the data on your external hard drive, wireless or not.