Most second-hand thumb drives contain data from past owners


Our penchant for plugging in random memory sticks isn’t the only trouble with our USB hygiene, a study shows.

Many computer users don’t take enough precautions when disposing of their USB sticks, leaving a trove of what is often sensitive information about themselves for the drives’ new owners, a study has shown.

Researchers from the University of Hertfordshire purchased 200 second-hand memory sticks – 100 in the United States, 100 in the United Kingdom – on the open market recently to see how many of them still contained data from previous owners.

In short, most USB drives did contain leftover data from previous owners, and the information could be retrieved with zero or minimal effort, reports Comparitech, which had commissioned the study.

Specifically, 20 people made no attempt whatsoever to cleanse their storage devices. Simply plugging the memory sticks into a computer was enough to reveal their contents.

More often than not, however, the data was deleted, but that did not put it out of reach. Using only publicly available data-recovery software, the researchers were able to restore the contents of 135 thumb drives with little effort, even where they had been formatted. Of those, 44 USB drives contained enough information to identify the devices’ previous owners.

Unsurprisingly, the data found on the thumb drives ran the gamut – from corporate and legal documents, tax forms and pay slips, all the way to potentially even more disconcerting finds. Those included photos of money and shotguns together with a search warrant, as well as nude images of a middle-aged man along with his name and contact details.

Meanwhile, only 34 USB flash drives were securely wiped with dedicated software while only one was encrypted, putting whatever data that was ever stored on the sticks beyond reach for the new owners.

Speaking of which, strong encryption is your best bet to keep your data on various kinds of storage devices safe from prying eyes. Importantly, this will give you a peace of mind not only if you decide to sell, give away or toss the storage media, but even in the not-too-unrealistic scenario that it will go AWOL.

That is, in fact, another issue with USB sticks, or, rather, with our approach to highly portable media in general. In addition, past research has also shown that we’re also very prone to inserting random USB sticks found on the street into our computers, willingly exposing ourselves to malware.

Last year, the University of Hertfordshire conducted a similar study with second-hand memory cards and arrived at similar findings as with the research involving thumb drives.

written by Tomas Foltyn, ESET We Live Security

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