Can we ever close the USB security gap?

In a recent Dilbert comic strip, Dilbert is offered files on a USB drive by a colleague.

In a recent Dilbert comic strip, Dilbert is offered files on a USB drive by a colleague.

“Get that thing away from me,” he exhorts. “I don’t know where it’s been!”

When something as seemingly esoteric as USB security can hit a mainstream cartoon like Dilbert, you know it’s a real issue. But it’s also one that has been poorly addressed by many companies, whose employees seem to be losing data through this largely unpoliced security hole faster than your Uncle Barry going through $2 coins at the local TAB.

USB drives represent a unique problem in information security: they’re cheap, ubiquitous, and capable of storing large amounts of information. Adding to the fun, they’re as promiscuous as Heidi Fleiss and have a tenth the integrity: data on USB drives can be easily corrupted if they’re not ejected properly, for example, and they are a giant asterisk on the structured document management systems of many companies.

When it comes to breaking corporate document versioning, after all, there isn’t much better way than to copy a key document onto four coworkers’ USB drives and send them home for the night to work on it.

Expect three drives to come back at all, two of them to have completely different versions of the document in question, and one of them to have picked up a nasty viral infection from the family home computer.

And the fourth? It’s probably either crammed between the seats of a taxi, or stuck into the computer of some pimply-faced hacker who is finding it to be amazingly compelling reading at this very moment.

In July, information-management research body the Ponemon Institute put some numbers around the issue, and they’re not pretty. Seventy per cent of the 743 IT practitioners surveyed said it was “absolutely certain” or “most likely” that USB compromises were responsible for recent security breaches, with just 29% saying they had adequate governance in place to prevent USB misuse and only 26% reporting they had adequate technology to support these policies.

These numbers paint a sobering picture for CSOs, who face the unenviable task of figuring out how to manage the myriad security holes posed by USBs and the people that misuse them.

Unfortunately, an outright ban on USB drives is about as effective as preaching abstinence to teenagers: they’ll look at you seriously and understandingly, nod their heads in agreement, and go do whatever they feel like. Unlike data stored in lost smartphones, USBs don’t come with a remote wipe feature: lose it, and your best hope is that your employees’ lost company USB drive makes its way to the bottom of a deep river somewhere.

Flash-drive maker Kingston, for one, reckons it has an answer: its DataTraveler 6000 drive comes with all kinds of built-in encryption to prevent prying eyes from seeing what’s on the USB drives your careless employees leave around. The product description is loaded with acronyms like FIPS 140-2 Level 3 validation, 100-percent 256-bit AES encryption, XTS block cyper mode, and more.

The spooks love this stuff, apparently, but the key takeaway for the CSO is that it can make hackers’ lives harder. Since some employees would lose their heads if they weren’t securely bolted to their shoulders, automatic data encryption can at least minimise the collateral damage should they put the USB stick with a draft of your company’s next annual report onto the counter while drinking a beer with mates, then completely forget about it as one beer turns into four.

That’s the lost-USB drive issue taken care of, in theory – although you may find it hard to convince employees to use only the USB drives you offer them when they probably have dozens of their own at home. As I write, for example, I’m looking at a small basket filled to the brim with USB drives of capacities from 4GB down to 128MB; good luck trying to guess which one I’ll grab the next time I want to trade files with someone.

A better ecosystem has, to be fair, steadily evolved around USB drives: Windows 7’s BitLocker feature, for example, can automatically encrypt data stored on USB drives, while there are tricks to prevent use of USB drives of any kind. Kingston also offers a managed USB drives called the 4000-M, which is managed using an app called SafeConsole that requires the drive to ‘phone home’ online when used.

The challenge is actually using them, and nothing else. Can these innovations really make a difference to USB security – and, more importantly, could you really lock down users’ USB device usage well enough to bring them in check? Time will tell, although we must give security vendors some credit for their undying optimism.

How are you dealing with the USB menace? And how well has it worked? Or are you just crossing your fingers and hoping for the best?

Tags governanceData storageUSBPonemon InstituteUSB drivesKingston TechnologybreachesDataTraveler 6000windows 7 Bitlocker

Show Comments