The price of USB thumb drives is continuing to come down, but just like any tool these can be abused as well as used in powerfully constructive ways. I was amazed recently to purchase a 2 GB USB drive for $30 on sale at an office products store. The recent events at Los Alamos with nuclear-related, classified material drives home the point that USB flash drives can pose serious security risks. According to the article “Los Alamos nuclear documents found in home” on November 3rd:

U.S. authorities are investigating the discovery of nuclear weapons documents in the home of an employee at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Officials told CBS News Friday that more than 400 pages of documents were found on three portable USB thumb drives, including information on bypassing the security locks on U.S. nuclear bombs.

The article “Nuclear Lab Breach Could Be ‘Devastating'” provides more background information:

The woman had top secret “Q-clearance” with access to all the U.S. underground nuclear test data. Additionally, she had “Sigma 15” clearance, which allows her access to info on how to deactivate locks on nuclear weapons. For example, if a terrorist steals an American nuclear weapon, he could not detonate it due to the special access controls. This woman is authorized to read the reports that tell how to get around those safety controls. Only the FBI will be able to tell for sure what’s on the thumb drives, but British security officials are worried that design plans for Trident nuclear weapons are among the stolen documents. They are making inquiries of U.S. officials. Britain used to test its nuclear weapons in the United States, and data on those tests may have been held at Los Alamos.

Schools need to be concerned with security related issues involving USB thumb drives also. With a 1 GB or 2 GB USB drive, students involved in 1:1 laptop initiatives are in some cases able to boot their Windows-based laptops to a separate operating system contained on the USB drive. This permits them to bypass any and all security software programs installed on their laptop, including client-based content filtering software. Bootable “Live CDs” like that available from Ubuntu also permit users to bypass their installed OS and security software. As long as computer BIOS settings permit booting to USB and CD-ROM sources at startup, both of these boot options and filtering-software workarounds are available for students.

These realities drive home the point made by Gamal Sherif in Chris and and Marcie’s video for K-12 Online. Access to and understanding of technology by itself has a neutral bearing on ethical decisionmaking. We have to help our students learn and practice ethical decisionmaking. As adults we cannot serve as the content filters for our students forever. We certainly need to provide content filtering for students in our U.S. schools– CIPA requires it and common-sense morality demands it as well. I do not think, however, we are addressing ethical issues enough in public schools. These news articles about security breaches at Los Alamos drive home this idea to me.


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One Response to USB thumb drive security issues

  1. Eric M says:

    There is really no excuse for not securing files on a USB drive. There are many free programs like OMZIFF that can be carried around on the hard drive and use Fort Knox encryption standards like Blowfish.

    As for being able to boot off of a CD or a USB drive…the real issue is securing the local pc and also setting up good firewalls to prevent access to internet or local networks. It makes no difference what device the student is using if the firewall is properly setup.

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