How do I set up password protection for an external hard drive?


Password protecting a drive isn't really possible (or even useful) without also encrypting the contents of the drive. Honestly I'm not even certain that's something you can do since, what would the password be granting access to if the contents of the drive weren't encrypted?

So really the question you want to ask is: how do I encrypt an external hard drive?

With Lion you have FileVault to achieve this. FileVault makes it easy to encrypt your primary drive but you can also use it to encrypt the contents of remote storage. Just about any read/write storage media you attach via USB or FireWire can be FileVault'd and secured. The caveat? You can only use FileVault-protected drives on other Lion machines.

MacWorld has a short slide show that walks you through mounting and formatting the disk with an encrypted file system. To summarize the steps:

  1. Mount the drive
  2. Open Disk Utility
  3. Select the drive and click on the Erase tab
  4. For the format pick either Mac OS Extended (Journaled, Encrypted) or Mac OS Extended (Case-sensitive, Journaled, Encrypted) from the list of available options. In most cases you'll want the former.
  5. Press Erase to start the format
  6. You'll be asked to confirm your choice and enter a password for the volume
  7. Once the formatting is complete you'll need to enter the password to be able to mount and view the contents of the drive

If you're not running Lion or you want something that's portable across multiple OSes you can look at TrueCrypt. It's free software for encrypting file systems, much like FileVault, but it's available for Windows, OS X (both Snow Leopard and Lion) and Linux so you can access the encrypted remote media from just about any machine.

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  • Thank you! Using Disk Utility makes this very convenient. – gentmatt Jan 24 '12 at 12:27

If you're running Mac OS X 10.7 "Lion" you can create an encrypted (password protected) drive (partition) using Disk Utility. This drive will only be useable by Macs running Lion. Also, this is a formatting process. You can't encrypt a drive that has data on it.

Another option would be to use Disk Utility to create (an) encrypted Disk Image (or Sparse Image) file(s) on the external drive and store sensitive data within the protected image(s). This solution would allow you to access the data from Macs running any relatively modern version of the OS. (Not sure exactly how far back you can go.) Encrypted Disk Images are (to my thinking) one of the hidden "gems" of the Mac OS and are underutilized in my experience.

Beyond that there are third-party options like PGP, but I don't have (recent) experience with them so I can't comment from experience.

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If you want to use features built into the operating system, you could create an encrypted disk image on the external drive using Disk Utility. This would provide password protection.

Another option would be to use an external utility like TrueCrypt. I haven't used it myself, so I can't speak for its effectiveness or ease of use, but I have read good reviews. When Lion first came out there were some compatibility problems, but they seem to have been resolved as of September 2011.

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I'm using "USB Secure" to password protect all my external HDD, give it a try, it's a wonderful piece of software

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    Hello and welcome to Ask Different! Could you please add a link to the software that you are using? Thanks. – daviesgeek Mar 15 '12 at 21:46

You can password protect files on the hard drive, but not the whole hard drive itself.

But you could put all your files in a folder in your hard drive and put a password on that folder which would have the same effect.

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  • Would you mind explaining how to put a password on a particular file? – bassplayer7 Dec 19 '12 at 13:36
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    There is no native way to "put a password on a file" with any current version of Mac OS X. On the other hand, there IS a way to encrypt full external drives! (a.k.a. FileVault) – myhd Dec 19 '12 at 13:49
  • Besides being faux, your suggestion also lacks reasoning. Please update the answer to include guidelines for how to achieve what you say works. – gentmatt Dec 19 '12 at 16:56

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