Google anti-abuse team researcher Elie Bursztein tested the effectiveness of using “lost” USB memory to spread malware on a college campus. In Bursztein’s study, almost all of the USB sticks (97 percent) were picked up and almost half (45 percent) were plugged into computers where someone clicked on the stored files. In further testing, Bursztein found that USB sticks with labels such as “Exams” or “Confidential” were more likely to be opened than unlabeled drives while sticks with return addresses were less likely to be opened.
The threats from USB drives can come in several forms. HTML files or executable files stored on the drive could activate malware to infect the system in the background while running innocuous programs in the foreground. Users could be sent to a phishing site that would attempt to steal personal information. Alternately, activated code could search the computer’s files for personal credentials and then attempt to send them back to the hacker or to the cloud for later retrieval.
USB devices that resemble memory sticks but are really keyboard spoofers could be programmed to allow remote access and signal a hacker that the computer is open and ready for whatever the hacker intends.
It’s also possible to use USB sticks to mount zero-day attacks that exploit known software vulnerabilities either before vendors patch the hole or before users download updates. According to Bursztein, zero-day threats are less likely to be spread with randomly “lost” USB sticks due to the cost and complexity of altering firmware. You are more likely to be hit with malicious files or to pick up a keyboard-spoofer.
In any case, the best advice is to resist the temptation to pop a “found” USB stick into your computer just to see what’s on it. Bursztein demonstrated how a USB drop attack could work at Black Hat USA 2016.