BitLocker Drive Encryption

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A component of Microsoft Windows
BitLocker icon.png
Other names Device encryption
Type Disk encryption software
Included with Windows Vista
Also available for Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows RT

BitLocker Drive Encryption is a full disk encryption feature included with the Ultimate and Enterprise editions of Microsoft's Windows Vista and Windows 7, and with the Pro and Enterprise editions of Windows 8[1] desktop operating systems, as well as the server platforms, Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows Server 2012. It is designed to protect data by providing encryption for entire volumes. By default it uses the AES encryption algorithm in CBC mode with a 128-bit or 256-bit key, combined with the ''Elephant'' diffuser for additional disk encryption-specific security not provided by AES.[2][3] CBC is not used over the whole disk, only for each individual disk sector.


The Bitlocker option during Windows To Go creation

BitLocker is available in the Enterprise and Ultimate editions of Windows Vista and Windows 7. It is also available in the Pro and Enterprise editions of Windows 8.[4] Users of other versions of Windows that do not include BitLocker can use a third-party encryption program to satisfy the need for full disk encryption (see comparison of disk encryption software). In the RTM release of Windows Vista, only the operating system volume could be encrypted using the GUI; encrypting other volumes required using WMI-based scripts included in Windows Vista in the %Windir%\System32 folder.[5] An example of how to use the WMI interface is in the script manage-bde.wsf that can be used to set up and manage BitLocker from the command line. With Windows Vista Service Pack 1 and Windows Server 2008, volumes other than the operating system volume can be encrypted using the graphical Control Panel applet as well.[6]

The latest version of BitLocker, included in Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows Server 2012, adds the ability to encrypt removable drives. These can be read, but not written to, by Windows XP using Microsoft BitLocker To Go Reader program if using the exFAT, FAT32 or FAT16 filesystems.[7]

Windows RT and Windows 8.1 include a "device encryption" system using a feature-limited version of BitLocker as its backend; logging in with a Microsoft account automatically begins the encryption process, while Windows 8.1 automatically begins encryption as soon as it is installed on compatible hardware. The recovery key is stored to either the Microsoft account or an Active Directory login, allowing it to be retrieved from any computer. While device encryption is offered on all versions of 8.1, unlike BitLocker, device encryption on x86-based devices requires that the device meet the Connected Standby specifications (which among other requirements, requires that the device use solid state storage and have RAM soldered directly to the motherboard to protect against cold boot attacks) and have a TPM 2.0 chip.[8][9]

Bitlocker is also compatible with the portable version of Windows 8 called Windows To Go.[10]


There are three authentication mechanisms that can be used as building blocks to implement BitLocker encryption:[11]

  • Transparent operation mode: This mode utilizes the capabilities of Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 1.2 hardware to provide for a transparent user experience—the user powers up and logs into Windows as normal. The key used for disk encryption is sealed (encrypted) by the TPM chip and will only be released to the OS loader code if the early boot files appear to be unmodified. The pre-OS components of BitLocker achieve this by implementing a Static Root of Trust Measurement—a methodology specified by the Trusted Computing Group. This mode is vulnerable to a cold boot attack, as it allows a powered-down machine to be booted by an attacker.
  • User authentication mode: This mode requires that the user provide some authentication to the pre-boot environment in the form of a pre-boot PIN. This mode is vulnerable to a bootkit attack.
  • USB Key Mode: The user must insert a USB device that contains a startup key into the computer to be able to boot the protected OS. Note that this mode requires that the BIOS on the protected machine supports the reading of USB devices in the pre-OS environment. This mode is also vulnerable to a bootkit attack.
  • Recovery password: A numerical key protector for recovery purposes
  • Recovery key: An external key for recovery purposes
  • Certificate: Adds a certificate-based public key protector for recovery purposes
  • Password: Adds a password key protector for a data volume

The following combinations of the above authentication mechanisms are supported, all with an optional escrow recovery key:[12]


Contrary to the official name, BitLocker Drive Encryption is a logical volume encryption system. A volume may or may not be an entire drive, or it can span one or more physical drives. Also, when enabled, TPM and BitLocker can ensure the integrity of the trusted boot path (e.g. BIOS, boot sector, etc.), in order to prevent most offline physical attacks, boot sector malware, etc.

In order for BitLocker to operate, at least two NTFS-formatted volumes are required: one for the operating system (usually C:) and another with a minimum size of 100 MB[18] from which the operating system boots. BitLocker requires the boot volume to remain unencrypted—on Windows Vista this volume must be assigned a drive letter, while on Windows 7 that is not required. Unlike previous versions of Windows, Vista's "diskpart" command-line tool includes the ability to shrink the size of an NTFS volume so that the system volume for BitLocker may be created from already allocated space. A tool called the BitLocker Drive Preparation Tool is also available from Microsoft that allows an existing volume on Windows Vista to be shrunk to make room for a new boot volume and for the necessary bootstrapping files to be transferred to it;[19] Windows 7 creates the secondary boot volume by default, even if BitLocker is not used initially.

Once an alternate boot partition has been created, the TPM module needs to be initialized (assuming that this feature is being used), after which the required disk encryption key protection mechanisms such as TPM, PIN or USB key are configured. The volume is then encrypted as a background task, something that may take a considerable amount of time with a large disk as every logical sector is read, encrypted and rewritten back to disk. The keys are only protected after the whole volume has been encrypted, when the volume is considered secure. BitLocker uses a low-level device driver to encrypt and decrypt all file operations, making interaction with the encrypted volume transparent to applications running on the platform.

The Microsoft Encrypting File System (EFS) may be used in conjunction with BitLocker to provide protection once the operating system kernel is running. Protection of the files from processes and users within the operating system can only be performed using encryption software that operates within Windows, such as EFS. BitLocker and EFS, therefore, offer protection against different classes of attacks.[20]

In Active Directory environments, BitLocker supports optional key escrow to Active Directory, although a schema update may be required for this to work (i.e. if the Active Directory Services are hosted on a Windows version previous to Windows Server 2008).

BitLocker and other full disk encryption systems can be attacked by a rogue bootmanager. Once the malicious bootloader captures the secret, it can decrypt the Volume Master Key (VMK), which would then allow access to decrypt or modify any information on an encrypted hard disk. By configuring a TPM to protect the trusted boot pathway, including the BIOS and boot sector, BitLocker can mitigate this threat. (Note that some non-malicious changes to the boot path may cause a PCR check to fail, and thereby generate a false warning.)[21]

Security concerns[edit]

According to Microsoft sources,[22] BitLocker does not contain an intentionally built-in backdoor; without a backdoor there is no way for law enforcement to have a guaranteed passage to the data on the user's drives that is provided by Microsoft. The lack of any backdoor has been a concern to the UK Home Office,[23] which tried entering into talks with Microsoft to get one introduced, although Microsoft developer Niels Ferguson and other Microsoft spokesmen state that they will not grant the wish to have one added.[24] Microsoft engineers have said that FBI agents also put pressure on them in numerous meetings in order to add a back door, although no formal, written request was ever made; Microsoft engineers eventually suggested to the FBI that agents should look for the hard-copy of the key that the BitLocker program suggests its users to make.[25] Although the AES encryption algorithm used in BitLocker is in the public domain, its implementation in BitLocker, as well as other components of the software, are proprietary; however, the code is available for scrutiny by Microsoft partners and enterprises, subject to a non-disclosure agreement.

The "Transparent operation mode" and "User authentication mode" of BitLocker use TPM hardware to detect if there are unauthorized changes to the pre-boot environment, including the BIOS and MBR. If any unauthorized changes are detected, BitLocker requests a recovery key on a USB device. This cryptographic secret is used to decrypt the Volume Master Key (VMK) and allow the bootup process to continue.[26]

Nevertheless, in February 2008, a group of security researchers published details of a so-called "cold boot attack" that allows full disk encryption systems such as BitLocker to be compromised by booting the machine off removable media, such as a USB drive, into another operating system, then dumping the contents of pre-boot memory.[27] The attack relies on the fact that DRAM retains information for up to several minutes (or even longer if cooled) after power has been removed. Use of a TPM alone does not offer any protection, as the keys are held in memory while Windows is running, although two-factor authentication, i.e. using TPM together with a PIN, offers better protection for machines that are not powered on when physical access to them is obtained. Similar full disk encryption mechanisms of other vendors and other operating systems, including Linux and Mac OS X, are vulnerable to the same attack.[27] The authors recommend that computers be powered down when not in physical control of the owner (rather than be left in a "sleep" state) and that the encryption software be configured to require a password to boot the machine.

Once a BitLocker-protected machine is running, its keys are stored in memory where they may be susceptible to attack by a process that is able to access physical memory, for example, through a 1394 or Thunderbolt DMA channel.[28] Any cryptographic material in memory is at risk from this attack, which therefore is not specific to BitLocker.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "What's New in BitLocker for Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012". TechNet Library. Microsoft. February 15, 2012. Retrieved 2012-03-02. 
  2. ^ "Windows BitLocker Drive Encryption Frequently Asked Questions". TechNet Library. Microsoft. March 22, 2012. Retrieved 2007-09-05. 
  3. ^ Ferguson, Niels (August 2006). AES-CBC + Elephant Diffuser: A Disk Encryption Algorithm for Windows Vista (PDF). Microsoft. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  4. ^ "Windows BitLocker Drive Encryption Frequently Asked Questions". TechNet Library. Microsoft. March 22, 2012. Retrieved 2007-09-05. 
  5. ^ "BitLocker Drive Encryption Provider". MSDN Library. Microsoft. February 19, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  6. ^ Hynes, Byron (June 2008). "Advances in BitLocker Drive Encryption". Technet Magazine (Microsoft). Retrieved 2008-07-18. 
  7. ^ "Description of BitLocker To Go Reader". Microsoft. Retrieved 2013-09-07. 
  8. ^ "Windows 8.1 includes seamless, automatic disk encryption—if your PC supports it". Ars Technica. Retrieved 18 October 2013. 
  9. ^ Thurrott, Paul (June 4, 2013). "In Blue: Device Encryption". Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows. Penton Media. Retrieved June 10, 2013. 
  10. ^ Windows To Go: Frequently Asked Questions - Can I use BitLocker to protect my Windows To Go drive?
  11. ^ "BitLocker Drive Encryption". Data Encryption Toolkit for Mobile PCs: Security Analysis. Microsoft. April 4, 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-05. 
  12. ^ "ProtectKeyWithNumericalPassword method of the Win32_EncryptableVolume class". MSDN Library. Microsoft. February 19, 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-18. 
  13. ^ "ProtectKeyWithTPM method of the Win32_EncryptableVolume class". MSDN Library. Microsoft. February 19, 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-18. 
  14. ^ "ProtectKeyWithTPMAndPIN method of the Win32_EncryptableVolume class". MSDN Library. Microsoft. February 19, 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-18. 
  15. ^ "ProtectKeyWithTPMAndPINAndStartupKey method of the Win32_EncryptableVolume class". MSDN Library. Microsoft. February 19, 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-18. 
  16. ^ "ProtectKeyWithTPMAndStartupKey method of the Win32_EncryptableVolume class". MSDN Library. Microsoft. February 19, 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-18. 
  17. ^ "ProtectKeyWithExternalKey method of the Win32_EncryptableVolume class". MSDN Library. Microsoft. February 19, 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-18. 
  18. ^ "BitLocker Drive Encryption in Windows 7: Frequently Asked Questions". TechNet Library. Microsoft. March 22, 2012. Retrieved 2012-04-07. 
  19. ^ "Description of the BitLocker Drive Preparation Tool". Microsoft. September 7, 2007. Archived from the original on 2008-02-19. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  20. ^ Ou, George (June 8, 2007). "Prevent data theft with Windows Vista's Encrypted File System (EFS) and BitLocker". TechRepublic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 2013-09-07. 
  21. ^ "BitLocker Drive Encryption in Windows 7: Frequently Asked Questions". TechNet Library. Microsoft. March 22, 2012. Retrieved 2013-03-16. 
  22. ^ "Back-door nonsense". System Integrity Team Blog. Microsoft. March 2, 2006. Retrieved 2006-06-19. 
  23. ^ Stone-Lee, Ollie (February 16, 2006). "UK holds Microsoft security talks". BBC. Retrieved 2009-06-12. 
  24. ^ Evers, Joris (March 3, 2006). "Microsoft: Vista won't get a backdoor". CNET. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 2008-05-01. 
  25. ^ Did the FBI Lean On Microsoft for Access to Its Encryption Software?
  26. ^ Byron, Hynes. "Keys to Protecting Data with BitLocker Drive Encryption". TechNet Magazine (Microsoft). Retrieved 2007-08-21. 
  27. ^ a b Halderman, J. Alex; Schoen, Seth D.; Heninger, Nadia; Clarkson, William; Paul, William; Calandrino, Joseph A.; Feldman, Ariel J.; Appelbaum, Jacob; Felten, Edward W (February 21, 2008). Lest We Remember: Cold Boot Attacks on Encryption Keys (PDF). Princeton University. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  28. ^ "Blocking the SBP-2 driver and Thunderbolt controllers to reduce 1394 DMA and Thunderbolt DMA threats to BitLocker". Microsoft. March 4, 2011. Retrieved 2011-03-15. 

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