WD Passport hardware encryption even when no password is set?

After my WD external drive died unexpectedly during a firmware update, I am not convinced if I want to go on with the replacement drive.

When I asked the WD tech if it would be possible to recover the data (the drive is fine, only the chip containing the firmware died!) by opening the enclosure and have direct drive access, he said no. The reason is, the drive is encrypted, though there is no password used?! I cannot just take the drive out of the enclosure and read it from a computer or different enclosure. Not even from the same model.

Anyone can explain in detail what is the design? My specific questions are:

  • Why would a customer need hardware data encryption when there is no password set? In the enclosure, the data is readable anyways. To me, this is a useless feature, only making it impossible recovering the data on a firmware failure event.

  • How would data recovery work if it is done by a professional? What if the encryption keys are blown away by the firmware updater?

  • How can someone recover the data when a password IS set and the firmware chip dies?

  • I once set a password for the drive and then removed it later. It didn’t look like the drive accessed the whole data and re-encrypted it. How does that work? It just takes the provided password and encrypts the key itself? And decrypts the key when the password is provided?

IMHO, the overall design is somehow poor. The encryption keys are out of control of the user. A minimum requirement for me would be the possibility to read out the encryption keys. The internal connector should be designed in a way that raw drive access is possible. Then, when the firmware dies, a customer could read out the drive content with a low level access software and the formerly saved encryption keys. Hardware encryption is somehow useless and unsafe if it generates unknown encryption keys and is prone to failure itself.

Just my two cents. I would change my mind if someone could explain in detail why and where I think wrongly. So far, I wouldn’t use any of these WD passport drives as storage for important data anymore. Including backups.

Sometimes the firmware update doesn’t work when ran on a Mac but doing it from Windows does. Have you tried that? I know it sounds dumb but some people have had luck with that. You might be able to find a matching board on Ebay but opening the drive voids the warranty. This explains a bit about matching the boards http://community.wdc.com/t5/Off-Topic-Discussions/Bridge-Boards/td-p/353839