Second Hand USB’s Could Have Personal Info Still Inside

An unsurprising study was recently released that found even when a portable USB drive is erased, not all of the documents and images are always removed. That, of course, is frightening.

Here’s how the research was done:

Researchers went online to sites like eBay, to second-hand shops, and even auction stores. They bought 200 used USB drives, half from the US and half from the UK. Almost 2/3 of the devices had data on them! This data was, for the most part, personal data, and it can also be used by cybercriminals to steal someone’s identity. On top of that, these USB drives can contain malware.

Removing All Data is Difficult

When someone tries to delete or remove data from a USB device, they rarely have success. In fact, of the 100 USB devices the researchers bought in the US, only 18 of them were totally wiped clean. The rest of them had data that had been deleted, but someone could certainly recover it. The UK devices were similar. What’s so surprising about this is that it is extremely easy…and free…for someone to fully delete their device. But most people just don’t put in the effort, and that could definitely hurt them in the future.

USB Devices Can Be Risky

Using these devices can be risky, not only for average people, but also for businesses. In 2017, for example, a USB device was lost, and it contained sensitive information about Heathrow Airport. The government investigated, and eventually fined the company. The information was not encrypted, nor password protected, and it was found on the street by a random passerby.

Because of these risks, some companies, like IBM, have banned the use of USB devices. Instead, employees must use the company’s cloud. Other companies still allow them, of course, but they could be going down a dangerous road. These devices are really cheap to buy, and people can save almost anything on them, but they are also very easy to lose.

There are other issues with USB devices too. First, of course, you have the data on these drives to deal with, but there is also the fact that potential malware could be on the devices. Most companies don’t have the same rules that IBM has, and most consumers don’t think of this at all. This makes people and small businesses very vulnerable. So, if you use USB drives, there is one very important step that you need to take: encrypt it.

Robert Siciliano personal security and identity theft expert and speaker is the author of Identity Theft Privacy: Security Protection and Fraud Prevention: Your Guide to Protecting Yourself from Identity Theft and Computer Fraud. See him knock’em dead in this Security Awareness Training video.

Don’t pick up that USB Drive!

What a very interesting experiment: Researches randomly deposited 297 USB drives (aka USB stick, flash drive, thumb drive) around the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. They wanted to see just how many, and how soon after dropping them off, they’d be collected by people.

2DTurns out that 48 percent of the drives were taken and inserted into computers. The report at says that in some cases, this was done minutes after the drives were left in the public spots.

Picking up a USB drive off the streets and plugging it into your computer is akin to picking up discarded food off a sidewalk and eating it. You just never know what kind of infection you’re going to get.

And what you might get is a virus crashing your computer or stealing your data. That USB stick could contain malware—either left in public as a prank, or innocently lost or discarded without the original owner knowing it’s infected.

Or…it might have been left in a public spot by a hacker with full intent of gaining control of your computer to collect your personal data and committing fraud, such as opening lines of credit in your name or emptying out your bank account.

The USB sticks for the study contained HTML files with embedded img tags. The tags allowed the researchers to track the USB activity, which is how they new that, for instance, one of them was plugged into a computer only six minutes after it was left to be “found.”

Only 16 percent of the people who picked up the sticks actually scanned them to check for viruses before plugging them into their computers. And 68 percent simply inserted them without any regards to what they could get transferred into their computers.

  • Some users trusted that there was no harm.
  • Some plugged in the drive to seek out the owner.
  • Some intended to keep the stick.
  • Conclusion: A cybercriminal could easily take control of a business’s system by leaving a rigged USB drive in the parking lot, let alone get control of a personal computer by leaving the stick in any public place frequented by lots of people.

Robert Siciliano is an identity theft expert to discussing identity theft prevention.

USB Drives have serious Security Flaws

That little thing that you stick in your computer to store or transfer data can also mean very bad news.

3DThe USB device or “flash drive” can be reconfigured to work like a little thief, for instance, being made to mimic a keyboard and take instructions from the master thief to rip off data or install malware. It can be made to secrete a virus before the operating system boots up, or be programmed to alter the computer’s DNS setting to reroute traffic.

There’s no good defense for these kinds of attacks. The firmware on the USB devices can’t be detected by malware scanners. Biometrics are out because when the firmware changes, it simply passes as the user plugging in a new flash drive.

Cleaning up the aftermath is no picnic, either. Reinstalling the operating system doesn’t resolve the problem because the USB device, from which installation occurs, may already be infected. So may be other USB components inside one’s computer.

Whitelisting USB drives is pointless because not all have unique serial numbers. Plus, operating systems lack effective whitelisting mechanisms. Also, Malicious firmware can pass for legitimate firmware.

To prevent a bad USB from infesting a computer, the controller firmware must be locked down, unchangeable by an unauthorized user. USB storage devices must be able to prevent a cybercriminal from reading or altering the firmware. It must make sure that the firmware is digitally signed, so that in the event it does become altered, the device will not interface with the altered firmware.

  • Watch your USB drive – don’t set it down and make sure you keep track of it so it’s not lost or stolen.
  • Disable auto-run – Turn off auto-run on your computer so that if a USB drive has malware, then it won’t automatically be transferred to your machine.
  • Be careful who you share your USB drives with – Be careful what computers you place your USB drive in and who you let borrow your USB drive.
  • Use comprehensive security software – make sure your security software not only scans your computer for threats, but also any drives that are attached.

Robert Siciliano is an identity theft expert to discussing  identity theft prevention. For Roberts FREE ebook text- SECURE Your@emailaddress -to 411247. Disclosures.