The Dangers of Plugging in USB Drives

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A USB is a helpful piece of small equipment that allows you to copy and store information. Some call it a flash or a thumb drive and while the intention for this compact tool was convenience (who doesn’t want to have access to what could amount to stacks and stacks of information in the palm of their hands?), hackers have found multiple ways to utilize it for exploit. This simple USB flash drive can represent a serious cyber threat through a form of social engineering.


Do people actually plug unknown media into their computers? Absolutely, every day. It’s easy to assume the drive you buy from a store, are given at work or as a promotional gift is clean but corrupt USB drives have been responsible for infecting major networks with malware. In an experiment conducted by Google Inc, 297 flash drives were intentionally dropped on a large campus. Out of the 297 flash drives approximately half of them were plugged in and the files they contained where opened. This is a prime example of curiosity killed the cat- it only took the malware on the dropped drives six minutes to infiltrate the system of computers on campus!  How many times have you plugged in external media? While this may seem like an innocent action, you have to be cautious with the safety of what you plug into your devices. 


Hackers use the technique of tricking you or what is called social engineering you to hoax you into plugging a USB into your computer. Paying close attention to how a USB drive appeared is a good indicator a red flag, for example, a hacker can send the media through the mail pretending to be a customer or can insert themselves physically into a work atmosphere leaving the USB drive on a desk for easy access. This attack is commonly used to break into your work station and evidently taking over your organization. 


Often people plug in USB drives to convert it for personal usage and not to find what’s on the drive. Is this safe? It is possible to clear out the drive to restore factory settings but a common misconception is that this makes the drive harmless. However, even when cleared, a USB drive engineered by a hacker can still pose threats to cybersecurity. A good example of how this works is something called Keylogger. Keylogger is a type of malware downloaded onto a device that gives access to a hacker, showing them every time you type in your username and password. Sensitive files can be accessed at this point and hackers can even be as malicious as to hack microphone listening on your conversations or webcam which gives them the ability to spy on you. 


By default, systems have USB Autorun features enabled. This is the single biggest security risk with USB drives. The simplest and easiest way to protect yourself from Virus’ and Trojan’s on USB drives is to disable the Autorun feature. This will prevent any automated applications from running without you knowing and allow any Anti-virus scanning to be effective as you browse the contents. In a work environment that should not need external USB drives, it may be more effective to disable USB access all-together. Due to the extreme nature of external media, always check with the source you think the media came from. Be aware of the red flags and never plugin unless you know it is a trusted drive.