Have you ever seen a USB stick laying around? Maybe it was left on a table, or you found it on the ground. While it can be tempting to plug it into a computer, perhaps for your own use, or to see who the owner is, there is a good reason not to.  USB drives can carry viruses, and one way that people can obtain your information is by leaving a loaded-up USB stick around. Whichever unlucky person plugs it into their computer will have their machine infected. Here is how it works.

The USB will be loaded up, not as a storage device, but as a tool to insert a virus into your computer. Once it has been plugged in, it can get to work. You don’t even have to run any programs installed on it.  If you open it, it might look empty or appear to be storing some benign data. However, all USBs have some software built into them. This is the software that allows them to interface with your computer, and runs the storage programs which will load data. A hacker can replace this normal software with the virus, letting the virus pretend to be all sorts of things once it starts talking to your computer.

Once the virus is in, it basically has free reign inside your machine. It will be able to download additional malware, view your internet connection and redirect your traffic as it sees fit, steal your information, and more, all while remaining hidden. Moreover, any devices plugged into the computer might become infected. Like their biological namesake, many computer viruses are adept at replicating and spreading to other connected machines. Once one has been infected, its whole network is vulnerable.

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One of the most powerful and damaging pieces of malware in history was spread via USB drive. The Stuxnet worm, which was responsible for momentarily crippling Iran’s nuclear program, was loaded onto the machines via thumb drive. It is thought that one of the scientists working on the nuclear program brought in an infected drive, which spread to the network once the drive was open. Eventually, the malware caused millions in damage and brought the purification of radioactive material to a screeching halt.

Therefore, if you find a random thumb drive do NOT plug it into any machine that you value. You could end up with your information stolen or worse. The key to stopping this type of malware is simply awareness.