Thursday, July 12, 2018

Why USB Drives are Effective but also Dangerous

External USB drives are convenient and extremely affordable, which makes them the perfect solution for many uses. Consider the following applications:
  • Moving files from one computer to another
  • Keeping a secondary copy of important files
  • Holding software executables, like anti-malware or internet browsers, to install on computers with malware or other issues that make it challenging to install software in traditional ways
  • Sharing large files with others that email filters traditionally block
When USB drives are connected to a device, the device automatically detects it and installs software as necessary. This process takes less than a few minutes and once finished, the device is ready to use. Unfortunately, like many items that make our lives easier, they also bring risk. For example, Internet of Things, or IoT, devices can be controlled via apps and online applications. This also makes them a target to hackers and the easiness of using USB flash drives makes them a target. 

Example of an external USB flash drive. This particular drive has a rotating cover to protect the USB connector.

Why USB Drives are Effective, but also Dangerous

USB flash drives come with a large variety of onboard storage, ranging from small and almost disposable to larger application and function. They are compact and light meaning they are portable, and easily fit into laptop bags and desk drawers. Additionally, the USB standard is widely accepted across platforms. This means most devices, whether computers or laptops, running Windows or Mac operating systems have available ports.

A by-product of being easy to use, cheap, and available for purchase in many stores is that USB flash drives have fallen victim to nefarious schemes. Drives given away at conferences can be picked up, compromised, then thrown back into stacks of other normally functioning drives. Eventually an unsuspecting attendee will pick it up and walk away with it having no idea it has been tampered.

When you do not know who has touched a USB drive, or if you cannot verify every person that has had access to the drive and what they have done, you need to be cautious. In most situations, it is best to never use free USB drives. If you do, wait until after scanning it for malware. It is especially important not to plug these drives into a networked business computer. Malware, like Ransomware, can traverse mapped network drives and cause harm to much more than the computer the drive is physically plugged into.

Whatever ways you use USB flash drives, whether for personal or business use, it is good practice to maintain ownership of the drive at all times. Do not leave it lying around on a desk or any place where it could easily be picked up, compromised and returned without your knowledge. External USB flash drives are amazing tools that can be used to transfer large files that email filters often block, or even to protect proprietary data you do not want to send over the internet. But, like any tool, use an appropriate amount of caution when using them.

As always, knowing which tool is best for specific tasks makes those tasks more efficient but being aware of any unintended consequences is also important! 

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