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.
Turns out that 48 percent of the drives were taken and inserted into computers. The report at theregister.co.uk 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.