Can A USB Storage Device Survive A Trip Through The Human Digestive System?

30 April 2009

A New York man has been charged with obstruction after attempting to destroy evidence by swallowing an USB flash drive.

According to reports, Florin Necula was part of a criminal group who had been using almost undetectable card readers to extract information from the magnetic strips on cards entered into cash machines by unwitting victims.

After being arrested and taken to a Secret Service office in Brooklyn, Mr Necula attempted to withhold or destroy whatever evidence was on the flash drive in question by swallowing it. Four days later, with Mr Necula still unable to pass the device, he underwent surgery under doctors’ advice to have it removed.

At the time of writing, it is not known whether the data on the device survived, but experiments have seen computer forensic experts still able to retrieve all of a USB device’s data after it has been submerged in various acids. As such, it is fully expected that it will be possible to recover the data and use it as evidence should the case come to trial.

In fact, even if a device’s memory has been ‘wiped’, computer forensic experts can often still extract its history. Where data theft is suspected, forensic analysis can reveal traces, known as ‘artefacts’, not only on the device itself, but also on the computer it was connected to. These traces are usually found in the computer’s registry, and might include information such as the USB device’s unique serial number, the times and dates it was connected, and evidence of downloaded data.

One of the reasons the use of such drives has become common is because the cost is falling, while storage capacity is rising. In fact, a consumer could purchase a single 16 gigabyte flash drive for less than 20 GBP, whilst some flash drives are now capable of holding up to 512 gigabytes of data. In real terms, this means a malicious user could walk away with the equivalent of over 8 million 10-page MS Word documents on a single drive the size of a pack of chewing gum.

So in the case of Mr Necula, it seems that the durability of a USB device will prove a positive for the justice system, but for corporations – or anyone with a computer containing sensitive information – the prevalence of such devices is presenting a growing threat.

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