How to Use USB Sticks Safely

USB flash drives were invented to store files and transfer them across devices easily. They have become very popular because they are really good at this job. Unfortunately, USB sticks as well as other removable media storage devices come with significant risks.

Malware risks

People use USB flash drives to move files across devices. What many fail to realize is that in addition to useful files, they also often move around malware. Every time a USB stick is plugged into a device, there is a high risk that it will be infected with malware present on that device. When that USB drive is later plugged into other devices, there is an equally high risk that these new devices will also be infected.

So, it is a very bad idea to use a USB stick to move files between devices. And it is outright dangerous to use USB sticks when you have no idea where they came from. This is true for USB drives that you find in the street, your office, school, library, or anywhere else. This is also true for flash drives that are given out by companies or organizations to advertise them or share documents.

Storing files

Personally owned USB flash drives are safe when you use them to store files and only plug them into a single device. As long as you know how to keep that device secure, your memory stick will also be safe.

It is important to remember, however, that USB flash drives are not designed for long-term data storage. If you have used a memory stick for a long time, you know that it is bound to malfunction eventually. And when this happens, it is often impossible to restore data that was stored on the memory stick.

Using USB sticks a safer way

As noted above, using USB flash drives to move files across devices comes with a huge risk. There is no guaranteed way to eliminate these risks. So, unless there is absolutely no way for you not to rely on a USB memory stick, just avoid them.

If however, you must use a USB flash drive or decide to do so despite the risks, there are several things you can do to make your devices and data a little bit safer. These measures will not always protect you from all malware risks stemming from USB flash drives used across devices. But they will protect you from some of the common malware types that infect devices through USB memory sticks.

1. Use antivirus and keep your system up to date

Good antivirus software will protect your devices from malware that can steal, damage or destroy your data. Make sure you use a licensed antivirus program. If you are a Windows user, your operating system comes with an effective built-in antivirus tool, Microsoft Defender that just needs some minor setting changes to make it function well.

You should also make sure that your antivirus software and operating system are up to date. It is best to set this software to update automatically.

2. Disable AutoRun and AutoPlay on Windows devices

AutoRun and AutoPlay are Windows features that allow a USB flash drive inserted into a device to run a script. A lot of malware disseminated through USB memory sticks infects devices by using these features. Permanently disabling AutoRun and AutoPlay on a Windows device helps protect it from such malware.

3. Use antivirus software to scan new USB sticks

Once you insert a USB memory stick into your computer, you can use the antivirus software running on it to scan the memory stick for malware.

4. Secure USB flash drives physically

This might sound obvious but you should also protect your USB memory sticks from loss or theft, two scenarios that happen very often. Never leave your flash drives unattended in a place where they can be stolen.