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The truth about USB malware and safety best practices

A strain of malware can steal data from a USB device itself rather than infect a network or system. Nick Lewis explains how to mitigate the threat.

Computers at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were infected by Universal Serial Bus (USB) malware, but I heard that these malware attacks did not infect networks/systems but steal data directly from USB devices. Can you please explain how this attack works and the best ways to thwart similar attacks?

Infecting systems over the network has almost become passé given the releases from Edward Snowden around the NSA using Bluetooth and other methods to compromise systems and steal data. Defending against these sorts of attacks is eventually going to require a Faraday cage and no communications interconnects whatsoever. Even common criminals nowadays are using Bluetooth in skimmers on gas pumps to steal credit card data.

In the IAEA attack, it appears that only those computers in a public meeting area were infected with malware that reportedly compromised data on any USB drives that connected to the computers. While visitors and staff in this area might have had a reasonable expectation that these systems were secure, they were mistaken. Other devices that were not in open spaces do not appear to have been affected.

To protect the USB drives in your enterprise from a similar attack, advise employees to only use known secure computers or their own system or, if only a public computer is available, use a thumb drive with no other information on it other than the data needed for a particular presentation for that day.

Additionally, there are many USB drives available that have software that runs a sandbox or protects against infected systems. Alternately, enterprises could set up a VPN to a secure terminal server with two-factor authentication to minimize the chances of data being copied to the local system and compromised.

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This was last published in June 2014

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Scared. Just scared. Am I supposed to just not use my USB ports or - as is my pattern - format all drives that get plugged into my machine? And I work from a home office as the owner/operator of my freelance writing company. If I'm this scared, shouldn't this pervade the industry? I'm scared also that it has not. Wake up security people! There are bad people trying to hurt you and steal your data. Do something about it! You have the power.
Well, this is frustrating. Since I do a fair amount of carry between systems, USB is an important part of what I do. Using trusted systems and the recommendation of virtualizing or running sandboxes on the USB devices is an interesting approach.
USB can be a great thing wen you need to take work home. It does open a door for bad people to do bad things. If you block the ports this prevents people from putting in more hour at their convenience. A possible work around for this is the cloud. There are problems there as well. No matter what we try to protect ourselves, there are others looking to exploit any security measures we put in place. 
All of my PC's and Servers are set to scan for Viruses and Malware from any devices that are plugged into any USB port that is attached to the PC or Server