Using trusted USB drives that you own on your up-to-date, well-secured operating system is one thing, but what if your best friend stops by with their USB drive and wants you to copy some files to it? Does your friend’s USB drive pose any risks to your well-secured system, or is it just baseless fear?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Question

SuperUser reader E M wants to know what the dangers of an untrusted USB drive could be:

Suppose someone wants me to copy some files to their USB drive. I’m running fully-patched Windows 7 x64 with AutoRun disabled (via Group Policy). I insert the USB drive, open it in Windows Explorer, and copy some files to it. I do not run or view any of the existing files. What bad things could happen if I do this?

What about if I do this in Linux (say, Ubuntu)? Please note that I’m looking for details of specific risks (if any), not “it would be safer if you don’t do this”.

If you have a system that is up to date and well-secured, are there any risks from an untrusted USB drive if you only plug it in and copy files to it, but do nothing else?

The Answer

SuperUser contributors sylvainulg, steve, and Zan Lynx have the answer for us. First up, sylvainulg:

Less impressively, your GUI file browser will typically explore files to create thumbnails. Any pdf-based, ttf-based, (insert Turing-capable file type here)-based exploit that works on your system could potentially be launched passively by dropping the file and waiting for it to be scanned by the thumbnail renderer. Most of the exploits I know about are for Windows though, but do not underestimate the updates for libjpeg.

Followed by steve:

There are several security packages that allow me to set up an AutoRun script for either Linux OR Windows, automatically executing my malware as soon as you plug it in. It is best not to plug in devices that you do not trust!

Bear in mind, I can attach malicious software to pretty much any sort of executable that I want, and for pretty much any OS. With AutoRun disabled you SHOULD be safe, but AGAIN, I don’t trust devices that I am even the slightest bit skeptical about.

For an example of what can do this, check out The Social-Engineer Toolkit (SET).

The ONLY way to truly be safe is to boot up a live Linux distribution with your hard drive unplugged, mount the USB drive, and take a look. Other than that, you’re rolling the dice.

As suggested by others, it is a must that you disable networking. It doesn’t help if your hard drive is safe and your whole network gets compromised.

And our final answer from Zan Lynx:

Another danger is that Linux will try to mount anything (joke suppressed here).

Some of the file system drivers are not bug free. Which means that a hacker could potentially find a bug in, say, squashfs, minix, befs, cramfs, or udf. Then the hacker could create a file system that exploits the bug to take over a Linux kernel and put that on a USB drive.

This could theoretically happen to Windows as well. A bug in the FAT, NTFS, CDFS, or UDF driver could open up Windows to a takeover.

As you can see from the answers above, there is always a possibility of risk to your system’s security, but it will depend on who (or what) has had access to the USB drive in question.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

Akemi Iwaya
Akemi Iwaya has been part of the How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media team since 2009. She has previously written under the pen name "Asian Angel" and was a Lifehacker intern before joining How-To Geek/LifeSavvy Media. She has been quoted as an authoritative source by ZDNet Worldwide.
Read Full Bio »