Stop! Put down that USB stick

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Are you sure you know how safe your USB stick is? Do you really think that you should plug that into your network? Those of you who work in large firms will be used to your USB sockets being locked. Do you think it is just a virus they are trying to protect you against?



What are the weaknesses?

You need to be far more aware that a weakness in USB sticks and other plug-in media has recently been found.  Called ‘BadUSB’ this is not something new but it is a weakness in the security previously not admitted. Viruses can be hidden in the firmware rather than the software making them incredibly difficult to detect – basically when you plug in the stick (or other USB device) it could start its own Operating System with access to your drives and completely bypass your own Virus Protection.

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What’s the problem?

It can be extremely damaging:

  • completely take over a PC
  • invisibly alter files installed from the memory stick,
  • even redirect the user’s internet traffic.

The average user will look at the USB stick and think that there is nothing on it. However hidden in the firmware this malware can cause havoc. Remember It is not going to be picked up by your usual virus protection.

So unless your IT team are incredibly talented and have the ability to reverse engineer the firmware of the USB stick what will appear to be a safe USB stick simply may not be.

How to stay safe

The only way it is now safe to use a USB stick is to know that the manufacturer is safe and which machines it has been plugged into. If someone brings one to the office you have no idea where they bought it or what they used it for and why. So play safe and get clients and contacts to email files in so you don’t have this firmware issue.

The way this problem will be solved is for manufacturers to introduce code signing on their USB devices. If you hear that a company has done so then you need to make sure that they are the only USB sticks used in your machines. At a recent exhibition Kingston claimed to have done so and other manufacturers are sure to follow.

One prime risk is likely to be the USB sticks given away at events and exhibitions. You just cannot be certain where these have come from and I would give them a miss.

Have I scared you yet, no!?  Then one more scary thing – this isn’t just USB sticks, it is any USB Peripheral:  be it a Mouse, Keyboard or even a printer. Any of these can be infected at manufacture with BadUSB. For now the only advice can be stick with known brand name manufacturers.


Having scared you I should say that there haven’t been any known uses of this exploit yet but being as it is so difficult to detect it may just be because we don’t know of any yet.

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