Cyber safety with USB drives
Using a USB drive can be a convenient method of storing files, either as a (temporary) backup of specific data or for sharing or transferring files such as presentations, spreadsheets, documents or other information.
However, it’s important to ensure cyber safety around USB drives for two reasons:
- USB drives can be used to distribute malware and;
- If a USB drive is misplaced, lost or stolen, sensitive information can be disclosed.
What can a “rogue” USB Drive do?
A malicious USB device can be deliberately placed where you will find it and our curiosity to see what files are on the USB by plugging it into our computer can lead to malware being installed (sometimes without us even knowing it has occurred). While the impact of this threat can range from annoying to devastating, you can stay protected from these threats.
If you find a USB drive – don’t plug it into your computer as this action may lead to malware being installed! Instead hand it into the Library Service Desk so they can assist with ensuring that it is kept safe for the owner to come back and retrieve it.
Protecting your USB from physical and cyber risks
USB drives lack basic protection and if the USB is misplaced, lost or stolen, sensitive data may be fall into the wrong hands and be inadvertently disclosed. Depending on the sensitivity of data being stored, consequences can range from an inconvenience to a major data leak with serious impact.
Protecting data on USB drives can be easily achieved through a few key actions including:
- Firstly, ensure the physical safety regarding the USB:
- Don’t plug unknown USB drives into your computer!
- Use secure USB drives if possible – some new models have fingerprint authentication
- Only use USB drives from reputable sources (avoid shady third party suppliers or USB drives handed out at conferences)
- Keep your computer software and anti-virus up to date – this helps protect against malware if it happens to be on a USB
- Secondly, remove files no longer required and;
- Thirdly, use encryption.
Encryption on a USB is a great way to ensure that no one can access the files unless they have the decryption key (in this case a password). Encryption can be set for the entire drive or by setting a password on just a file itself on the USB.
A handy hint if you only decrypt the files themselves on a USB is to have a simple text document (unencrypted) on the USB which has contact details if the USB is lost.
Windows based encryption for documents and USB drives
- Encrypting Windows based Microsoft Office documents (Word, Excel, PPT etc.) is easy – when the file is opening select ‘File’ from the top menu, then ‘Protect Document’ and ‘Encrypt with Password’.
- Encrypting a USB Drive with Windows Bitlocker is easy – simply install the USB, open File Explore, Right Click on the USB drive and select ‘’Turn on Bitlocker’ then proceed to set a password. This encrypts the entire USB drive and once encrypted the USB cannot be opened to view or access files unless the password is entered.
Apple Mac based encryption
- Encrypting Mac based Microsoft Office documents (Word, Excel, PPT etc.) is easy – when the file is open, select ‘Review’ from the window menu, then ‘Protect – Protect Document’, from here you can set separate passwords for opening documents and editing documents.
- Encrypting a File or Folder Mac Native Encryption is easy – but it may take a few extra steps. Insert USB and ensure you have backed up your content. You may be able to ‘right click’ or ‘ctrl-click’ on the icon on the desktop – click ‘encrypt’.
- If the option to encrypt is not available, you will need to launch ‘disk utility’ and choose your USB. You will need to name the device, ‘Format = Mac OS Extended (Journaled)’ and ‘Scheme = GUID Partition Map’*. From here, you will be able to ‘right-click’ or ‘ctrl – click’ on the USB icon and select ‘encrypt’.
- * You may need to click ‘view’ in the top left corner and select ‘all devices’ to see ‘scheme’.
Remember the encryption password!
Once a file, folder or USB is encrypted the password you set is case sensitive and is required to open the document or USB drive – so remember the password as there is no way of accessing the document or USB if you forget the password! We have some hints for choosing the right password for you.