April 7, 2016

DON’T DO THIS! People will pick up and use almost 50% of random, discarded USB drives, study finds.

A team from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign dropped 297 USB drives around the uni grounds, leaving them in places like parking lots, hallways, classrooms, libraries, and cafeterias. They found that almost half of the data sticks (and possibly a lot more) ended up being used in a computer, and almost all of them (98 percent) were picked up and removed from where they were originally dropped.

To track what people did with the USB sticks when they found them, the researchers put HTML documents on the drives, masquerading as files called “documents”, “math notes”, and “winter break pictures”. When somebody discovered these files on the drive and tried to open them with an internet-connected computer, the researchers were notified.

Amazingly, despite the potential risks of executing these random files, people did so with 45 percent of the discarded USB drives – representing 135 instances of users opening the files. It’s entirely possible that many more of the USB drives were inserted into computers too – the researchers were only notified if the HTML files were opened (and even then, only if the computer was online at the time).

So are people just nosey snoops who can’t resist rifling through others’ personal data? Not necessarily.

When people opened the HTML files on the drive, they were informed about the experiment (in which they had so far been an unwitting participant) and invited to complete an anonymous survey. This gave them a chance to provide some information about themselves and explain what had motivated them to pick up and use the drive in the first place.

Less than half of the 135 users at this point opted to continue the experiment, but 43 percent did provide feedback. Most of the respondents (68 percent) said they wanted to return the drive to its owner, while 18 percent acknowledged they were merely curious about the contents. Two people admitted they just personally needed a USB drive!

Some of the USB drives had been put on key rings with dummy house keys, and many of the participants indicated that this encouraged their altruistic intentions, as it added an extra sense of urgency to returning the keys (ie. the owner might be locked out of their house).

This is why many places that care about security superglue USB drives shut.

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