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New Malware Shows Security Flaw in USBs

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Most people own a USB flash drive, but now researches have discovered a serious security flaw. It could mean a new class of malware that leaves users defenseless.

"Generally, everyone uses one (a USB port). Whether it's plugging a phone into your computer, backing up data to a hard drive, or taking things on the go with a flash drive, everyone uses them in at least some regard," said Jon-Luc May, an advanced repair expert at Best Buy. 

Now researches say there's serious security risk in USB devices, and the problem is in the very core of how they work.

German security researchers Karsten Nohl and Jakob Lell developed a malware called "BadUSB," which can be installed on a thumb drive or any device that connects via a USB port. The malware then can completely take over a computer or even spy on the user. 

"It could be a big boon for hackers looking to take control of your computer just by using a thumb drive, that everyone probably carries around in their purse, their car, or to school every day," said Matt Wirtel, director of sales and marketing at Velocity Network, an IT consulting and computer support company.

"It is extremely concerning. Basically you have to treat any computer that you don't have known access to, as infected," May said. 

 The way it works - the malware isn't a file in the USB's memory, but code that alters the "firmware" that controls a device's basic functions, like communicating to the computer that the device is a flash drive, or a keyboard, or a mouse. 

"There isn't any way for a computer to detect that (the malware) because it's basically saying, 'How do I use this?' 'This is how.' 'Oh, that must be correct,'" May explained.  

Without any viewable files, the malware can be incredibly difficult, or impossible to detect. 

"Obviously hackers can exploit that vulnerability now. So it's good and bad - good to know because maybe they'll make some changes to USBs so the vulnerability is gone. But now bad because there could be hackers designing things to exploit it," Wirtel said. 

Though this type of malware isn't prevalent yet, the researchers' find illuminates the security hole and how defenseless users are against it.   

"What we generally recommend people doing is try to avoid USB thumb drives if at all possible," Wirtel said.

"Essentially you'd want to treat it (USBs) like a hypodermic needle, and just not share them," May recommended.     


For file sharing, the experts recommend using cloud storage to file share files - Dropbox and Google Drive are both free options. 

The researchers will be presenting more information on the new form of malware this Thursday at the 17th annual Black Hat Security Conference in Las Vegas. 


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