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USB Killer Attack: How to Safeguard Your Electronic Devices and Sensitive Information

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Introduction

A USB killer is a small device that can be plugged into a USB port with the goal of damaging or destroying the device it is connected to. These devices are often marketed as a way to test the "voltage immunity" of a device, but can also be used for malicious purposes. For example, someone could plug a USB killer into an unattended computer in a public place, damaging or destroying the device. In a more targeted attack, a malicious actor could use a USB killer to damage or destroy the electronic systems of a targeted individual or organization.

Intra USB

Intra USB

How does a USB killer work?

The most common way these devices damage electronic devices is by overcharging them. The USB killer, when plugged in to the USB port, draws in large amount of power and voltage, which causes the voltage level in USB bus to rise rapidly. The electronic circuit inside the targeted device, which is designed to handle a specific range of voltage level, can't handle this high voltage and it get damaged. This is called as a “Voltage Overstress”.


There are several different types of USB killers available, but most of them work by rapidly charging and discharging a capacitor to generate high voltage pulses. Some USB killers also use an integrated circuit to generate the voltage pulses, which can make them more powerful and effective. These high voltage pulses can damage the electronic components inside the device and make it inoperable.

What are the dangers of USB killers?

The problem with USB killers is that they can be easily used for malicious purposes. The USB killer can be used to damage or destroy electronic devices in a public place, or in a targeted attack on an individual or organization. This can include computers, smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices that have a USB port. The use of USB killers can cause significant financial losses, as the damaged devices will need to be replaced.


Another danger of USB killers is that they can be used to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information. For example, if a USB killer is used to damage a computer that contains sensitive information, the attacker may be able to access that information once the computer is repaired. This can be a major security concern for individuals, organizations, and governments.


Another risk comes from the fact that USB killers can be used to attack devices that are part of critical infrastructure such as power plants, water treatment facilities, and traffic control systems. These systems are often controlled by computers that have USB ports and are connected to the internet, making them vulnerable to attack.

Table 1: Types and how it works and effects

Types of USB KillersHow it worksEffects

Voltage Pulse Generator

Rapidly charges and discharges a capacitor to generate high voltage pulses.

Causes "voltage overstress" in electronic devices, damaging or destroying the device.

Integrated Circuit-based

Uses an integrated circuit to generate high voltage pulses.

More powerful and effective at causing damage to electronic devices.

USB Power Surge

Draws large amount of power and voltage from the USB port causing voltage level in the USB bus to rise rapidly.

Can damage or destroy electronic devices by causing "voltage overstress."

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Laptop in black form

Laptop in black form

How can you protect yourself from USB killers?

There are several ways to protect yourself from USB killers. One way is to use devices that are designed to protect against voltage overstress, such as USB protection dongles. These devices can be plugged into a USB port and will limit the amount of voltage that is drawn from the USB port, protecting the device from damage.


Another way to protect against USB killers is to physically secure USB ports. This can be done by using tamper-proof covers for USB ports, or by disabling USB ports entirely. This can be useful in situations where a device needs to be physically secured, such as in a secure facility or on a sensitive military or industrial device.


Another important step is to be aware of the use of USB drives, in general, and to verify the authenticity of a drive before using it. This can be done by checking the file system of the drive and verifying that it is the expected file system and contains the expected files. It's also a good practice to never insert any USB drive that is found in public places, since these might be malicious devices.


Another important step is to keep all the software and security systems updated. This includes keeping the operating system, anti-virus software, and other security software updated to the latest versions. Additionally, it is important to have a plan in place for responding to security incidents, such as a USB attack. This should include procedures for identifying, containing, and eradicating any malicious software or devices.


It's also important for companies and organizations to train their employees to be aware of the potential threat of USB killers, and to implement policies and procedures to protect against them. This includes regularly checking and auditing the organization's IT systems, networks, and devices to detect any signs of unauthorized access or tampering. This can also include implementing security measures such as disabling USB ports, using USB protection devices and educating employees on the safe use of USB devices.

Coding In the screen of a gray laptop

Coding In the screen of a gray laptop

Conclusion

USB killers are a serious threat to electronic devices and the information they contain. They can be used to cause physical damage, gain unauthorized access to sensitive information, and attack critical infrastructure. To protect against USB killers, it's important to use devices that are designed to protect against voltage overstress, to physically secure USB ports, and to be aware of the use of USB drives and verify the authenticity of a drive before using it. Additionally, keeping all software and security systems updated, having an incident response plan in place and educating employees about the threat of USB killers is important for companies and organizations. By taking these steps, you can help to keep yourself, your devices, and your information safe from USB killers.

© 2023 Mazen KH

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