Don't Touch That Flash Drive! You Have No Idea Where It's Been.

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 30 2013 5:48 PM

Don't Touch That Flash Drive! You Have No Idea Where It's Been.

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That's a weapon, buddy.

Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

If you found a pretty little USB stick on the ground, would you plug it in to see what’s there? No? OK, what do you think your parents, neighbors, and co-workers would do?

When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ran a similar test in 2011, they discovered that 60 percent of those who found flash drives planted outside of government and contractor buildings plugged them right into their networked computers. Even worse, when the drives were outfitted with an official logo, the number jumped to 90 percent.

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Well, maybe those people weren’t properly trained in cyber security, you might say. (Insert joke about incompetent government workers.) Alas, a recent study divulged that 78 percent of IT security professionals confessed to experimenting with unidentified flash drives. Of those surveyed, more than 68 percent had been personally responsible for a security breach at work or home, often as a result of the orphaned drives.

People, you’ve got to stop picking up every flash drive you see and plugging it into your computer. There was probably a time when all was good in the world and no one infected storage devices with malicious viruses intent on your destruction. But that time has passed.

Stuxnet, the worm that made Iranian centrifuges go into hyperdrive, was delivered by a flash drive. A flash drive was responsible for one of the most serious cyber attacks on the U.S. military in history. And while it wasn’t a virus, Edward Snowden is reported to have used a flash drive when he downloaded the NSA, further raising the stakes of USB port security.

Whether it’s personal information on your computer or secrets of national security, we have an obligation to educate one another about the dangers of promiscuous plug and play. (Not to mention QR codes, email links, direct messages on Twitter, etc.) Send your friends and family an email, put flyers up at your local library, or stage a Dept. of Homeland Security-like prank. And for the love of god, set an example by not sticking random flash drives into your computer—if for no other reason than to avoid interactions with this guy.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.