Why USB Sticks Are Dangerous & How To Protect Yourself

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usb drive dangerUSB drives are so pervasive in today’s world of technology, but when they first debuted, they revolutionized data exchange. The first USB flash drives had an 8MB capacity, which isn’t much by today’s standards, but a far cry better than the alternatives – the 1.44MB floppy or the CD that required permanent burning. Nowadays we have USB drives that are larger than traditional hard drives.  But for all the convenience and power of the USB drive, there are some serious USB drive danger to be wary of.

The ubiquity of the USB drive has made us overly trusting of the technology. We plug them in, pull them out, and plug them in again without a second thought to issues of security and protection. And I’m not just talking about “safe ejection” to prevent data corruption. I’m talking about viruses, malware, and all of those pesky nuisances that love to infect every corner of our systems.

Unfortunately for us all, we need to be diligent about USB security just as much as we are about hard drive and network security. Keep reading to learn more about this problem and how you can adequately guard yourself against it.

USB Drives Are Like Mosquitoes

When we hear about network and computer safety, we often hear tips and tricks that are somehow related to the Internet. Don’t click random email links. Don’t visit shady websites. Keep your firewalls up and your antivirus databases updated. Use safe passwords and stay vigilant against keylogger infections.

Now consider this scenario: a high-security headquarters where lots of confidential work with sensitive data is being done. Places like this are often isolated from the Internet, instead relying on a closed-circuit intranet for data sharing and communication. And when you consider a place that’s completely severed from the malice of Internet hackers, you’d think the security would be top-notch.

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And in reality, the security is good. It’s near impossible to hack or corrupt an internal network like that without performing the kind of impressive stunts that you’d see in the next Mission Impossible. Yet even so, hackers were clever enough to find ways to infiltrate secure compounds from a distance: by infecting the very USB drives that employees would use to transfer files from outside to inside the building.

There are plenty of cases where viruses piggybacked onto USB devices in order to spread like wildfire across the world. Remember the dreaded Conficker worm? The United States military ended up having some trouble with the agent.btz worm that was brought in through an infected USB drive. And more recently, there was the cyber-weapon Stuxnet worm.

And so, USB drives are like mosquitoes. They have the potential to pick up infections when plugged into an infected computer and they can spread those infections almost instantaneously as they’re plugged into other devices. This is why it’s so important that you keep not only your computers clean but your USB devices as well using regular scans and antivirus programs.

USB Disk Security

usb stick security

USB Disk Security is a tool from Zbshareware Lab that is as close to an all-in-one USB protection suite as you can get. It provides a whole host of features and safety options to keep you as protected as you can be in all things related to USB drives. Most USB security tools will focus on the USB drives themselves, but USB Disk Security goes way beyond that.

USB Disk Security has the following features:

  • USB Shield, which protects you in real-time against connected USB devices.
  • USB Scan, which scans connected USB devices for malicious software.
  • USB Access Control, which prevents your computer data from being copied to USB devices.
  • USB Drive Control, which prevents USB devices from even connecting to your computer in the first place.

USB Disk Security supports Windows XP, 2003, 2008, Vista, and 7, but it may interfere with other antivirus programs already installed on your system. It’s free with limited features. A lifetime license will cost you $55 USD which unlocks all features and includes all future updates to the software.

BitDefender USB Immunizer

usb stick security

As you might have surmised from the description of USB’s dangers, most viruses depend on automatically running when the USB drive is plugged into a computer. This is in large part determined by the presence of an autorun.inf file which, as the name suggestions, automatically runs upon connection.

BitDefender, a security software company that I’ve praised in the past, has a free tool called the USB Immunizer that immunizes your chosen USB device against malicious autorun.inf files by creating its own special autorun.inf file that cannot be deleted or replaced.

BitDefender USB Immunizer works on Windows XP, Vista, and 7 on USB devices that are formatted with FAT, FAT32, and NTFS file systems.

USB Dummy Protect

usb drive danger

The USB Dummy Protect program has an interesting theory behind the way it protects your USB devices. Long story short: viruses and malware require available memory space in order to exist on a USB drive, therefore, if you fill up a USB drive entirely and leave no space whatsoever, then viruses and malware can’t get on no matter what.

So that’s what USB Dummy Protect does. It creates a dummy.file file on your USB device that takes up every last bit of free space. When you want to remove that protection, you just delete the file. Easy. If you tend to transfer files to and from your USB drive frequently, this may not be the most elegant solution, but if you have a USB drive whose contents rarely ever change then this could be fantastic for you.

However, due to the way that FAT file systems are designed, this method will not work if your USB device has more than 4GB of free space (since file sizes in FAT systems have a maximum of 4GB). For NTFS drives, you shouldn’t experience any problems.

Conclusion

USB drive dangers require constant vigilance. You might use the same USB drive for years without a hitch, then one day you could grab a file off of your friend’s computer and end up infecting your home network with something serious. USB security is not often on the minds of computer users, even the tech-savvy ones, but as long as you are aware and take proactive steps against the potential spread of viruses that piggyback on USB devices, you’ll be all right.

If you have any other suggestions for software aimed at USB-related security, please share them with us in the comments.

Image Credits: Virus USB Via Shutterstock, Secure USB Via Shutterstock

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Comments (33)
  • TysonChamberlin

    Thanks, this is very helpful :)

  • Steve Stallings

    Why no mention of Windows 8?

  • Nick

    It’s so true that USB drives are inherently (and increasingly) prone to spreading viruses.

    Scanning is nice, but there’s a simple, foolproof measure that works even better: a physical write-protect switch. Most of the time you’re plugging in just to transfer from your drive to the computer, not vice versa. So just flip the switch unless you need to write.

    It’s amazing that it’s only gotten harder to find a drive with such a switch, though. I only know of a few companies, like Kanguru, that still offer it.

    • Joel Lee

      I’ve actually never seen a USB drive with a write-protect switch. That brings me back to the old days with floppy disks that had similar switches. I would like to see more of that, yeah.

  • munkyBeatz

    Will add that the viruses/etc that generally add themselves to a USB device tend to piggy back on moves that you make; meaning when you move say a zip it incorporates writing to the drive when you access it. Also, your antivirus is only as good as it’s definitions, viruses are ever evolving and if you don’t update your virus software regularly, preferably daily, it can’t protect you.

  • Clyde Atwood

    I have Avira Antivirus Premium which automatically blocks all autorun.inf files.

    Do you think this is enough protection?

    • Joel Lee

      Autorun protection is good to protect against a lot of USB-related malware, but I’m hesitant to say that it’s “enough” simply because you never know when someone will devise a new type of virus that doesn’t use autorun. I suppose for everyday use, autorun protection is great.

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This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.