USB Security: A Sticky Situation

Opinion: Shutting down transfer points must be made easier.

Wall streeters say Duco Cement is the preferred glue for permanently shutting down a USB, serial or any other laptop port that needs to be shut down. I spoke with Ben Campbell, vice president for sales at Safend, about some of the more brute-force methods used to shut off port access, following an investigative article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, in which Campbell provided the Duco endorsement.

In that LA Times article, reporter Paul Watson described a bazaar next to the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan where flash drives allegedly containing the identities of local agents hired by the U.S. forces were for sale. The drives, apparently stolen from inside the base, could be had for as little as $40 and appeared to be sold mostly for the hardware value with little or no regard for the information they contained.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read Eric Lundquists rules and guidelines to avoid becoming another in the long line of recent data theft victims.

The article touched off a furor (as it should have) and led to a follow-up article describing an army officer traveling through the bazaar with a wad of cash, buying up every errant drive being offered. I wrote an article on the risk associated with USB devices.

While I suggested glue or chewing gum as the most expedient and visible way to mess up a USB port, Campbell noted that while gluing up the port is one method, that doesnt lock down other leaky methods, including infrared, wireless and transferring the hard drive from a stolen laptop to an unfettered laptop.

Companies such as Safend, SmartLine and others have sprung up with products to safeguard laptops and the many ports that adorn new computers. Did you shut down your USB ports? What about slipping a $20 USB hub adapter into your PCMCIA slot?

Im just saying that while computer vendors have gone out of their way to speed up data transfer, they are sorely lagging at making it easy for users to shut down those transfer points.

You can go to Microsofts security site to read about how to shut off USB ports, but you will also encounter this: "Warning: Serious problems might occur if you modify the registry incorrectly by using Registry Editor or by using another method." A search of the Microsoft security site yields little more than another glue-in-the-ports article.

A trip over to ends up with the company trying to sell a cable lock, which is a good investment but of little help in describing security measures you should consider in laptops. A search over at for USB security gets you hits about setting up wireless security.

You could argue that it is not the job of companies such as Microsoft and Dell to stop users from doing stupid things. And even with the stress and urgency of wartime contingencies, letting classified information leak out onto flash drives is a senseless and dangerous activity.

The point is that even with the added impetus security has achieved in the enterprise since the Sept. 11 attacks, security still often takes a back seat to ease of use, flashy graphics and speedy connections. Is it too much to ask vendors for one of their flashy graphic screens to make visible which ports are on and present a data transfer risk and make it easy to turn ports off without being prompted to change registry settings and BIOS commands?

The history of industrial design often has been one that keeps users from activities where they can harm themselves and others. Anti-lock brakes, airbags and smoke alarms have become standard products that are aimed at alerting users to dangerous activities or saving them when they engage in those activities despite warnings.

The movement to vendors and corporate technology managers locking down all access and then only opening up data and ports as required is an indication of movement in the right direction. The next, and best, step is incorporating security into the design from the start and making the level of security a visible reminder for the computer user.

Editorial Director Eric Lundquist can be reached at

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