The ever popular Bart Simpson USB

By Joe Evancho

BOISE, Idaho  — I recently came across an interesting article about the Universal Serial Bus (USB). Basically the article suggested that you use a USB as you would a toothbrush — and share accordingly. USBs are amazing devices and the amount of information you can store on them is equally impressive.

     According to Wikipedia, in computer parlance a bus (from the Latin omnibus, meaning “for all") is a communication system that transfers data inside a computer or between computers.” 

     The USB was developed in the mid-1990s and was designed to standardize the connection of computer components including keyboards, pointing devices, devices, digital cameras, printers, portable media players, disk drives and network adapters to personal computers both to communicate and to supply electric power.

     It is also used in smart phones, PDAs and video consoles. The USB has effectively replaced a variety of earlier connectors, such as serial and parallel ports as well as separate power chargers for portable device connectors and communication protocols used in a bus for connection, communication and power supply between computers and electronic devices.

What’s wrong with this picture

     They can also be the source of untold infections of malware and other debilitating information.

     A similar article explained how German security researchers discovered that USB-connected devices have a fatal flaw. Anything that connects via USB can be reprogrammed to pose as another device.

    That means a stranger's USB stick could dupe your computer into thinking it's a keyboard, then type in certain commands and quietly take control of your laptop.

   Or, it could pose as a network card, rerouting your Internet traffic so everything you do can be spied on. So if you use them, do so very sparingly, and think about how you will eventually dispose of them.

Firmware

     Firmware is a software program or set of instructions programmed on a hardware device. It provides the necessary instructions for how the device communicates with other computer hardware.

     IT Systems Integration Analyst Kevin Rank works for Idaho Public Television in Boise, Idaho. He said, “What it boils down to is that firmware is not secured on USB devices. Because of that, other USBs can reprogram another device."  Also USB devices are microprocessors which means they need Input/Output (I/O) and power from the device.

   “Input is anything you use to put information into a computer like mouse, keyboard or tablet," Kevin said. "Output is like the screen, and I think printers are considered output as well. I am sure there are more, but those are the most prevalent types of I/O.”

     So, a USB can open a terminal into a computer and “type” or input, their own information, just like someone sitting there could do.  The computer trusts that the device tells it good information.  The computer doesn’t realize a USB device can lie about what kind of device it is. 
The potential consequences of sharing

     Identity theft, bank fraud, extortion are all possible results of USB tampering. Any talented computer engineer can tamper with a device's firmware to dupe a computer.

    Some cyber security experts said the danger of sharing USB devices have been spotted before and the implications are now clear. Downloading the wrong app can infect your phone, then compromise your computer. And borrowing a stranger's USB stick could infect your computer permanently. 

     So sharing USBs may be socially acceptable, but the potential trouble makes it personally dangerous. We’ve all been conditioned that a USB is reusable, permanent piece of equipment, and early prices supported that model. USB sticks are very inexpensive these days, so if you have to loan one, don’t take it back after use.  

    This type of cyber-hygiene will go a long way toward keeping you safe. If you are a parent, keep your USB sticks locked up, and if your children need one, same rule – don’t recycle into the family inventory. You can pay now or pay later!

Posted 10:09 AM  View Comments

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