Why doesn’t the BitLocker wizard let me save the BitLocker key on an encrypted drive?

Raymond Chen

When the BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard steps you through the process of applying BitLocker full volume encryption to a drive, one of the steps is backing up your recovery key. There are a number of options, one of which is to save the key to a file.

If you try to save that file to an encrypted drive, you are told, “Your recovery key cannot be saved to an encrypted drive.” Why is that not allowed?

Saving your recovery key on an encrypted drive is the equivalent of locking your keys in the car. In order to get the recovery key, you would have to decrypt the drive, but decrypting the drive requires the recovery key!

The BitLocker wizard could in theory let you save the key to an encrypted drive that is unrelated to the drive being encrypted. For example, saving the system volume’s recovery key on a data volume is a bad idea (because you need to boot the system volume before you can get to the data volume). But saving the recovery key for a data volume to the system volume could be allowed since you can boot the system volume first, and then use the recovery key to access the data volume.

But for simplicity, the BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard doesn’t try to detect these scenarios. For your own safety, it simply refuses to save the recovery key to any encrypted volume.

Furthermore, the BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard won’t save the recovery key to an unencrypted fixed drive. That would be the equivalent of leaving your keys on the hood of the car. If you computer is stolen, the bad guys can just look on the unencrypted drive and find your recovery key, and use that to access the encrypted volumes.

You can save your recovery key to a cloud service (such as your Active Directory account), to a removable drive, or to a network location. Somewhere that is not on the computer being encrypted.

A security vulnerability report came in that said that they could trick the BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard into saving the recovery key to a local drive by sharing a local drive over the network and then net use‘ing that network share via loopback. This tricks the BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard into thinking that it’s saving the recovery key to another computer on the network, thereby circumventing the enforcement that the recovery key not be saved on an encrypted volume. The finder then requested a bounty payment.

First of all, the BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard requires administrator privileges, so this is an attack against the local machine coming from a user who already has administrator privileges, which is not interesting since there is no elevation of privilege.

Let’s look at the usual questions when evaluating a security vulnerability report. Who is the attacker? The attacker is the person who bypasses the BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard’s protections and saves the recovery key to an encrypted volume. Who is the victim? The victim is presumably the person who has now lost their recovery keys. But the attacker and the victim is the same person! The attacker has gained the ability to lock himself out of his own computer.

Now, you can circumvent the block in the BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard much more easily by just saving the recovery key to a removable drive, and then copying the file to an encrypted drive. Ooh, the recovery key is on an encrypted drive!

Or you can just use the Enable-BitLocker PowerShell cmdlet to enable BitLocker and tell it to put the recovery key on the encrypted volume. The PowerShell cmdlet doesn’t care.

Returning to the “locking the keys in the car” analogy: Say you have a fancy car that detects that the key is inside the car when you try to lock the door, and it beeps at you to remind you that you left the key in the car. All of these mechanisms to circumvent the Bitlocker Drive Encryption wizard are like taking the key and wrapping it in tin foil so the car sensor can’t see that the key is inside the car. “Using this trick, I am able to lock my keys inside my car. I have found a vulnerability in the don’t-lock-your-keys-in-the-car feature!”

Congratulations, you locked your keys in your car.

Not allowing you to save the recovery key on an encrypted volume is not a security feature. It’s a “Prevent you from making stupid mistakes” feature. When the wizard says “Your recovery key cannot be saved to an encrypted volume,” it’s not saying that saving the key to an encrypted volume is somehow illegal or invalid. It’s saying “Saving the recovery key to an encrypted volume is such a bad idea that I’m going to stop you if I notice that you’re trying to do it.”

But if you want to wrap your key in tin foil and do lock your keys in your car, then you are welcome to do so. I hope you’re happy now.


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  • Sergey Parshin 1

    I always save bitlocker recovery keys to my system drive when I encrypt a system on a new PC. But I only do it so that I can open the file and copy the key into bitwarden wallet before starting the actual encryption. (And then the local copy is removed).

    There has always been an easy way of doing it, though, no need for complicated setups with drive mappings – just print the recovery key and choose to print into a pdf

  • Mystery Man 1

    The error message is abysmal anyway. Look at it:

    This location can’t be used. Your recovery key can’t be saved to an encrypted drive. Choose a different location.

    It deviates from Microsoft writing guidelines and abuses passive tense.

    A better message could be:

    We did not save your key to this location. Saving your recovery key on an encrypted fixed disk or the encryption target defeats the purpose of having an encryption key.

    • Stevie White 0


      Yes, that message is more akin to the old, terse, “gotta say something and save space”, style error messages that still linger in Windows, Office, etc. It definitely would help if it were more clear on the “WHY”.

      • Mystery Man 0

        Oh, those! I remember some of them, like “bad command or file name,” “PC LOAD LETTER,” and “lpt0 on fire.”

  • D S 0

    I like to save mine to OneDrive. Not to the magical hidden recovery keys page in OneDrive, but as a normal text file that syncs up to OneDrive. I always found it annoying that the wizard wouldn’t let me save it to my local OneDrive synced folder, but then again I could just save it over the network to another machine. Ideally I want all my drives to be BitLocker encrypted, so this dialog always felt like a catch-22 to me.

    • Bernard Sheppard 0

      Same – but to the Personal Vault of OneDrive (so Encrypted).

      I still have to do the two-step process to get them there which is annoying, so I too net use a previously shared local directory on an already encrypted BitLocker data volume as per Raymond’s security vulnerability report, so that I can save “to a network location”, then copy that to OneDrive.

      This is a classic case of the required feature (an ability to override the warning, and allow you to do what the correctly written warning message should be warning you against doing) starts off with negative feature points, so doesn’t float to the top of the feature list.

      If you know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, it is actually safe.

      I’m not saving it on an encrypted volume, I’m saving it on what appears to be an encrypted volume to you, BitLocker, but is in fact just a local shadow copy of a cloud encrypted storage that is more accessible than the hidden recovery keys page in OneDrive and is far easier to read from my phone if I need to decrypt a volume in a boot recovery scenario. But thanks for checking. Now let me go ahead.

  • Ian Boyd 2

    My workaround.

    – tell the wizard i want to “Print” my recovery key
    – print it to the Microsoft PDF printer
    – and tell the Microsoft PDF printer to save the PDF to the same drive it is the the recovery for

  • Michael Entin 0

    Wow, so many people using the same workaround of printing the keys to PDF. I do it too.
    I save keys to Google Drive, and the wizard refusal to save locally so I can immediately upload it is quite annoying.

    I understand the wizard’s intention to help me here, but really it is not helping and the message does not help people who don’t understand what they are doing anyway. It would be more helpful if instead of giving that error message, it explained why it is such a bad idea, and asked user confirmation.

    Say “You will not be able to recover the volume if the key is stored here. Only save it here if you immediately transfer it to a secure store” Yes/No?

  • Azarien 1

    I did lock my car key in my car once. I had another key, which didn’t work because the other key was in the ignition lock. This was either a bug or some kind of security measure which I couldn’t comprehend.

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