Taking Care of Business: When USB flash drives go missing

by Mark Borkowski

Has anything like this ever happened to you or someone you know? You get to your destination or your client’s office and you realize your USB drive has decided not to join you. Now the fun begins. Was it encrypted? Where could you have lost it? It’s not just the information you’ve lost, it’s what can happen if the wrong person or people get their hands on it. Your boss is not going to appreciate this and the potential damage could be irreversible!

A study by the Ponemon Institute in Traverse City, Michigan shows an alarming percentage of companies do not consider protection of information on a USB drive to be high priority. Less than one-third of organizations believe they have adequate policies to prevent USB misuse.

In contrast, nearly half of large organizations have lost sensitive or confidential information on USB drives in just the past two years, and the rate is climbing at an alarming rate. Statistically, an average of 12,000 customer records are lost per organization due to missing USB drives. Throughout Europe, companies are being fined and embarrassed as these types of “scandals” are all over the radio and television.

Look, let’s face it: not everybody who finds a USB drive is a criminal or has nefarious intentions, but losing your drive is not exactly like losing your house key. The lost house key can belong to any one of five million locks but a lost, unencrypted USB drive can have immediate and devastating consequences. If you found a lost drive what would you do? What if there was a possibility to make some money if you sold it? Then you wouldn’t have any direct involvement with what happens to the information contained on that drive. It’s not really criminal activity, but it can have some serious and expensive consequences.

Identity-theft protection is a multi-million dollar industry and is growing at the speed of light. Its very existence means that billions of dollars are potentially being lost due to wayward information. We need to stop being part of this problem and proactively help bring down the statistics on identity-theft losses. The question is, how can we securely protect our information inexpensively and with portability? A small company based in Toronto named Great Durable Products Ltd. thinks it has the answer: biometrics.

Biometrics is not a new concept but it is a really good one. While the company’s Encriptor One fingerprint scanner will protect your data, it doesn’t actually need your fingerprint to do so. The people behind Encriptor One say their product’s square-pad design allows people to use any part of their fingers or even part of their hands as long as there is a pattern to detect. Say goodbye to the fingerprint critics.

In our always-connected society, we are bombarded with information about anti-virus software, firewalls, routers and password tactics to protect our private information on our own personal computers, but when we’re not dealing with our own information or our own safety, we tend to forget the urgency needed to protect the information other people entrusted to us. Many computer contractors who are quite aware of security issues sometimes do not extend that awareness to USB flash drives and the information they contain. Even if they do, it is hard to drive that message home to every employee company-wide.

And in case you answered “no” to my first question about knowing anybody who has ever lost a USB drive, now is the time to change your answer because you know me (or least you know what I write in this column).

I lost a USB that fell out of my pocket a few months ago. Afterward, I received a call from someone who found the drive and wanted to embezzle $3,000 from me by selling it back. He found me because my name was in the documents along with my contact information. I contacted the police and they arrested the gentlemen and returned my USB stick. I was relieved. It had sensitive and confidential information regarding three companies I was involved with. 

The detective responsible for these high-tech crimes gave me a valuable lesson. He showed me a large container of USB drives that had been turned into the police. He said some contained pornography, some engineering designs and three contained military information. He estimated that over 500 USBs were turned into the police in Toronto alone. The rest end up in the garbage, or in the wrong hands.

So please consider encrypting the information on your flash drive. Remember, the data you save may be your own!

Mark Borkowski is president of Mercantile Mergers and Acquisitions Corp. Mercantile is a mid-market mergers & acquisitions brokerage. You can contact Mark or his staff at www.mercantilemergersacquisitions.com

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  • Excellent article, Mark. A lost USB drive is not a fun experience. If I could add on one additional point to your comments, there are hardware encrypted USB drives which have the ability to be remotely deleted or disabled if lost through a simple web interface. Kanguru’s Defender series of USB drives has options for consumers or the most stringent requirements for corporations/government.

  • Hey what if someone put something malicious on your usb drive and try to blackmail you? How can you prove it didn’t come from you. Losting your unencrypted usb drive that can be traced it back to you can be dangerous if finder has unsavory intentions.

  • But what if they don’t call u or whatever,if the police show up they could say they don’t have it? Also ppl could have warrants