How do I protect my flash drive from malware?
April 26, 2010 4:30 AM   Subscribe

Can I use a flash drive to transfer files from university computer labs to my home computer without picking up nasty malware? I will often need to work on a number of 25-30 MB spreadsheets, both at home and in university computer labs, and I'm inclined to use a flash drive to transport the files. Because of download quotas, Dropbox might not work too well for me. Can I transport the files via flash drive while maintaining a reasonable level of security? If you use a flash drive on common use computers often, what's your method? Have you had security issues in the past? Thank you.
posted by surenoproblem to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you use some form of encryption on the drive, your data will be reasonably secure. Additionally, if you're only copying known files to the flash drive, you don't have to worry about malware and the like.
posted by Hiker at 4:45 AM on April 26, 2010

Uh no actually. There are plenty of viruses/malware that can sit on a system and wait till some form of removable media is detected and copy them selves to the flash drive or memory card and then infect your computer when you bring it home. If you are going to do a lot of back and forth file transfers on untrusted computers I would STRONGLY recommend some form of virus scan at the very least on your home system.
posted by Captain_Science at 4:58 AM on April 26, 2010

Thanks Captain. I've been scanning the drive with MalwareBytes when I get home, but can malware infect my computer as soon as I plug the drive in, before I get the chance to scan it?
posted by surenoproblem at 5:03 AM on April 26, 2010

The primary reason I have a memory stick is to load it with malware/spyware scanning tools.. and then plug it into infected systems so I can scan those systems. I probably scan 2 to 5 "dirty" systems a week..and have been doing so for years...and my memory stick has never gotten infected. (yes - I'm sure.) For part of that time I worked in a K-12 school district with quite a few different computer labs,.. and still, no problems. While I don't doubt the existence of memory-stick-jumping-malware,..I think the hype is overblown.

Your mileage may vary,..grain of salt... all that. Having said all the above I'd still recommend a good anti-virus such as ESET's NOD32.
posted by jmnugent at 6:03 AM on April 26, 2010

can malware infect my computer as soon as I plug the drive in, before I get the chance to scan it?

Absolutely. If your computer is configured to run the autorun program on the flash drive, the virus executable will run and infect your machine as soon as you plug it in. The easiest way to avoid this is to disable autorun on Windows and not open any files on your drive that you didn't put there before scanning them for malware.

While I don't doubt the existence of memory-stick-jumping-malware,..I think the hype is overblown.

I'm not so sure. While I'm sure my perspective is colored by the fact that I work in a college computer repair center, I see infected flash drives all the time (including the ones with removal tools for our staff to use).
posted by wxguychris at 6:16 AM on April 26, 2010 [6 favorites]

It's really down to how conscientious school IT is about sweeping the common use machines for nasty, evil stuff. If they do a nightly scan, you might be reasonably safe. OTOH, if they scan on a weekly basis (or not at all, until someone calls and says the machine is acting weird), then you're taking your chances.

Definitely scan your flash drive before opening any files on it.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:08 AM on April 26, 2010

I have a question of my own.

Can anyone recommend which anti-virus or malware detection programs would be best to use?

Also, what about when using 'write-protected' flashes? These are the flash drives with a little switch on them that prevents any unauthorized file from being written to the flash while it is switched to the locked position. What if you need to save a file from a public computer and thus switch them to the unlocked position?

I run a small nonprofit based in Africa, and many people I work with have to use computers infected with all sorts of things. The internet cafes there do not sweep the machines much at all, and I have no faith that the machines are safe. I am suggesting this year that all our staff and volunteers switch to write-protected flashes - should we also recommend they all install certain software on the drives??
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:05 AM on April 26, 2010

What Wxguychris said. If the drive can't autorun, and you can scan it with your current suite of virus detection stuff BEFORE you open anything on it you are at least safe from everything your virus detection stuff can find.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:14 AM on April 26, 2010

I use AVG and have it set to auto-scan any flash drive or removable media on both my home and work machines. I also disabled Windows auto-run and, as jmnugent mentioned above, I have several malware/spyware and virus detection programs on my flash drives, which I use to clean machines for other Windows users several times a week.
posted by Lynsey at 9:02 AM on April 26, 2010

I like Microsoft Security Essentials - set it to scan removable media, and you oughta be a little safer.

Is a CD-RW out of the question?
posted by drstein at 12:27 PM on April 26, 2010

Lynsey: I use AVG and have it set to auto-scan any flash drive or removable media.

Great idea. How does one do this? In my (free) AVG I don't see where to turn that feature on.
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:20 PM on April 26, 2010

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