SanDisk | SD-ROM | U3 USB Stick (In-)Security

U3 USB Stick (In-)Security
Q2/2007 by Martin Suess,
USB Sticks with the U3 feature threaten the
security of workstations and the enterprise
Applications may access local files and registry
information but they are removed when the
stick is ejected properly.
Windows stores a few information bits in the
registry for every USB device which is plugged
registry key:
A technical analysis about the U3 technology
on USB sticks and mitigation approaches for
personal usage as well as enterprises.
But wait a second, ...
USB memory sticks can be found
almost everywhere. Today, they
can be seen as the replacement for floppydisks, ZIP-drives and all that kind of media.
Nearly unnoticed, many of todays memory
sticks contain the two characters "U3" in a
symbol on the backside. Where is the
difference to the old fashioned USB sticks? Do
they bear any risks? can also use the Windows autostart
feature with a normal USB stick, so what's the
big deal?
To automatically start an application from a
normal USB stick, the Windows registry has to
be changed (described later in this article). By
default, Windows only autostarts from CD/DVD
ROMs. Since U3 sticks emulate a CD ROM, the
application will be started by default.
In short, a Windows has to be changed to allow
autostart from removable devices but has also
to be changed to deny autostart from CD/DVD
By the way: The autostart feature does not work
on Windows XP/2k when the screen is locked.
The U3 Technology
A U3 USB Stick is a normal USB memory stick
on first sight. Additionally it emulates a CD
ROM drive with around 6MB of space. Any
computer will recognize a USB disk drive and a
USB CD ROM drive when this stick is plugged
developed by U3 [1], a joint
venture of SanDisk and other
memory vendors. U3 was
created to be able to have
Windows applications and their
configurations always ready to
Applications which are enabled
to run from a USB stick are
called "Portable Applications".
The U3 capable USB sticks
contain a, a
autorun.inf file. When the stick is plugged in, the
Windows autostart feature reads the autorun.inf
file like on other CD/DVD ROMs and starts the
U3 launcher application. The U3 Launchpad
emulates a Windows-like start menu and
controls the installation and program start of
portable applications. The systems do not have
to be modified and the autorun feature for
CD/DVD drives is enabled by default on
Windows systems. The application which is run
by the autostart feature is executed with the
current user.
The Official Way
The vendors of the USB sticks
offer updater applications which
allow updating the firmware of
the emulated CD ROM on the
U3 Stick. In case of SanDisk, the
updater is named LpInstaller.exe
and fetches the most recent ISO
file cruzer-autorun.iso from the
SanDisk website. The content of
the CD ROM space is then
replaced with the files contained
in the ISO file.
Pimp my USB Stick
Before the updater of SanDisk downloads the
ISO file, it tries to find the ISO locally in the
same folder as the updater is started from. A
hacked ISO may be put on the stick when the
desired content is put in an ISO named exactly
like the official ISO. The ISO size must not
exceed 6'291'456 bytes in order to work.
U3 USB Stick (In-)Security
Q2/2007 by Martin Suess,
Please notice that the Windows default entry to
view the folder content also appears further
down in the list. Clicking on the injected
command executes the batch file evil_hack.bat
in this example. The last line of the autorun.inf
file causes the evil_hack.bat to be executed
when a user double-clicks on the drive in the
drive overview (under "My Computer") and
even works when autostart is disabled:
Another way is to set up a web server locally
and redirect the request for to
the local web server using the hosts file.
The autostart feature automatically runs the
application defined in the autorun.inf. This file
may be adapted to run malicious code.
The stick may be changed in a way that the
autorun starts the malicious code which then
starts the official launcher application stored on
the memory stick drive. This way it is hard for a
user to determine the difference between a
normal U3 stick and a modified one.
Since nearly no evidence is left on the machine,
it is hard to track such malware. A virus scanner
might detect known malware when the stick is
plugged in through on-access scans. The virus
scanner may also be started manually to search
the drives.
This technique clearly aims on social
engineering but also works for normal, non-U3,
USB sticks.
Small, Yet Powerful
When a USB stick drive it is plugged in,
Windows will, by default, ask which action to
execute. Such actions can be defined with an
additional autorun.inf on the USB stick:
Using the possibilities of this new technology,
many scenarios come to mind. Let's have a
quick thought on the options:
1. A memory stick which is prepared to gather
information on every machine it is plugged
in and executed. The information is packed
and stored on the stick. The software could
steal passwords, confidential documents
and more. Nearly no evidence remains on
the system - a forensic nightmare. This is
also known as pod-slurping [5].
action=Open folder to view files
What happens when you plug in a stick
prepared like this? Autorun starts the following
2. The stick could contain a program that
installs itself on every system it is plugged
in and executed. Once it is installed on the
system it could monitor users, copy data
from the system and memory sticks which
are plugged in later. This stick could be
plugged in at the Internet Café around the
corner. The data could easily be packed
and sent over the Internet.
3. Similar to the second scenario, a stick could
be used to bring a trojan into a company
which tries to open a tunnel to the attacker
through various channels.
4. When an attacker wants to own a bot
network. He visits various Internet Cafés
with his U3 USB stick containing a self-
U3 USB Stick (In-)Security
Q2/2007 by Martin Suess,
install bot and infects the PCs there. He is
then able to control these machines.
directors of British companies [13]. The USB
sticks where covered as invitations for an event
and automatically started a website when they
were plugged in. According to NCC, more than
47% of the managers plugged the sticks in and
the website was opened…
These are only four out of dozen of possible
Ready, Set, Go - Available Packages
Mitigation Approaches
The worst is yet to come: There are packages
which are built exactly for the purposes named
above. And they can be downloaded for free.
So how can someone get rid of those risks?
Most of us would not want to miss the ease of
use that USB sticks provide, would we?
One of these packages
is the so-called "USB
Switchblade" developed
by the group Hak.5 [4]. It
is made to silently
"recover" information from a target Windows
computer, including password hashes, LSA
secrets, IM passwords, IP information and
more. It requires a Win2k/XP/2k3 system and a
user with administrative privileges and physical
access but its payload can run silently and
without modifying the system or sending
network traffic, making it near invisible.
There are multiple approaches which should be
• Policies
• Technical Solutions
• Education
A few basic rules may save a lot of trouble.
Release rules in your IT Policy to restrict or
forbid the usage of USB devices generally or
USB sticks only.
Another package by Hak.5 is the "USB
Hacksaw" which automatically infects Windows
PCs. Once it is installed it will retrieve
documents from USB drives plugged into the
target machine and securely transmit them to
an email account. Even automatic propagation
to other USB devices is possible.
Keep sensitive data strongly encrypted. This
makes it a lot harder - if not impossible - for a
data thief to gain anything from stolen
What happened so far?
Technical Solutions
Be restrictive with giving away your USB stick
and accepting sticks from other people.
More and more incidents involving USB sticks
can be read in newspapers. In one case, a
Dutch officer lost his USB stick in a rental car
and then got into the hands of a Dutch
confidential information like secret entrance
codes to a diplomat's home and the names of
A security analyst posted an article [3] about
one of his jobs. He got hired by a financial
institute for a penetration test. He gathered
promotional USB sticks and copied a self
written trojan on each of the sticks. One day,
early in the morning, he dropped 20 of those
sticks around the financial institute. Within three
days, 15 sticks were found and all plugged in
and the trojans were executed…
In January 2007 the British security group NCC
sent 500 modified USB sticks to financial
Disabling USB Devices
If you do not need USB devices, disable the
USB port generally. For some devices, this can
be done in the BIOS settings. In Windows, USB
mass storage devices can be disabled through
the registry.
The following image shows the registry key
U3 USB Stick (In-)Security
Q2/2007 by Martin Suess,
We installed an evaluation version of
CenterTools DriveLock to show some features
here. After installing and (very) basic
configuration, plugging in a USB device causes
this message to appear and the disk cannot be
USB mass storage devices can be disabled by
changing the DWORD value of Start from 3
(enabled) to 4 (disabled).
The permission of this key has to be changed.
Deny Full Control to the System group.
Otherwise, when adding new devices, Windows
will change the DWORD to the default value (3)
again. The permissions can be changed in the
registry editor by right-clicking on the folder
where the registry key is located and selecting
Thirdparty Tools
If some devices or whole device classes are
needed, consider using specialized software to
whitelist these trusted devices.
Such tools use fingerprints of USB devices
(Device ID) to identify them. So far, no way to
fake these device IDs is known to Compass.
The programs allow a centralized device
management (AD, MS SQL) and policies may
be applied based on domains, groups or users.
The following picture shows the administration
interface of DriveLock. It contains not only
options drive and device blocking but also for
encryption, shadowed files and a device
There are various third party products available
which allow tightening the endpoint security in
an enterprise in different ways. Some of the
tools are listed here:
GFI EndPointSecurity [10] can be
embedded and configured through Active
permissions. It controls only whole device
categories and not single devices.
CenterTools DriveLock [12] can be
embedded in Active Directory and allows an
configuration files. It allows various kinds of
configurations based on users, groups,
device identifiers or combinations.
Smartline Device Lock also supports Active
Directory and an optional Enterprise Server
can be used to store audit logs and more
on a MS SQL server.
Safeend Protector [11] also integrates with
Active Directory and allows policy
definitions based on users, computers or
In an enterprise it might be necessary to allow
certain USB sticks and it is still not desired that
any stick may be used. DriveLock allows
defining the allowed USB sticks very precisely.
U3 USB Stick (In-)Security
Q2/2007 by Martin Suess,
It is possible to allow a whole Vendor / Product
ID group (e.g. SanDisk U3 Cruzer Micro) and/or
only specific devices which are defined by their
serial numbers:
To disable the U3 part of a USB stick but still be
able to use the stick itself, an enterprise could
use a third party software to disable all CD
ROMs except a few whitelisted ones that are
actually used.
Autostart Feature
It is helpful to disable autostart feature for all
devices and not only for CD ROMs. Please
keep in mind that this does only prevent the
automatically. There is still a high risk since it
takes the user only one wrong click to start
some evil program.
The according registry for Windows XP is:
[HKCU or HKLM]\Software\Microsoft\Windows\
The permissions can be set for users or groups
and read and write access can be specified.
The following table explains the meaning of the
bits of the DWORD value (bit set means
Additionally, the configured settings can be
distributed and applied to specific (or all) other
Removable Drives
Network Drives
Unknown drive type
All drive types
When the key is set in HKLM, a similar key in
HKCU is ignored. Also see the Microsoft
website [9] to get more details.
Finally, it is also possible to require encrypted
disks, show user messages and more.
This can be done through the Group Policy
(GPO) and locally. The following picture shows
Configuration > Administrative Templates >
System > Turn off Autoplay):
U3 USB Stick (In-)Security
Q2/2007 by Martin Suess,
get rid of the CD ROM part, use the removal
program of the manufacturer or U3. The
program can be found on the U3 website [1].
After the removal, you will have roughly 6MB of
additional space on your memory stick to use.
Test the technical solutions applied to make
sure they are working.
Education - Prevent Social Engineering
Microsoft's TweakUI also supports this setting
but only controls CD/DVD and removable
Along with releasing a policy and implementing
a technical solution it might be helpful to tell the
people concerned what the risks are and why
those measures have been taken. A
demonstration shows the risks and how an
incident could affect the company.
... there is one more threat which is not subject
of this paper but shall be part of further
research: USB driver exploits. They are even
more threatening because they give access to
local system privileges and are way harder to
detect. Best solution for now: Update system
regularly or even better, disable USB
functionality on your system.
Select My Computer > AutoPlay > Types and
uncheck both entries. This will disable the
autostart feature for both CD/DVD drives and
removable drives.
Inherited from older operating systems, another
registry key to enable and disable autostart
from CD/DVD ROMs can be found here:
The value can be set to 0 (autostart disabled) or
1 (autostart enabled).
Manual Prevention
If you are not sure whether or not the autostart
feature is disabled, press SHIFT while plugging
in a (U3) USB device. This disables the
autostart feature temporarily. From the security
point of view it is a little bit risky to rely on a
single button press though…
Getting Rid Of U3
U3 sticks also support removing the emulated
CD ROM on the USB stick. If you use U3 sticks
personally or in your enterprise and you want to
U3 USB Stick (In-)Security
Q2/2007 by Martin Suess,
About the Author
Martin Suess completed
his studies for BS in
Computer Sciences in
December 2004 with his
diploma thesis in the fields
of ZigBee networks in
Singapore. During his
studies he concentrated
on IT security, as well as
on network and Internet
technologies. After his
study, he worked on Bluetooth- and embeddedprojects at the University for Applied Sciences
in Rapperswil. At the same time he coached
student projects as well as tutorials in
"Algorithms and Datastructures in Java". He
joined Compass Security AG as a full time
security analyst in January 2006.
U3 Developers Homepage
SanDisk, USB Stick Manufacturer
Social Engineering, the USB way
Hak.5 - Wiki
Pod Slurping
Hacking U3 Smart USB Drives
Deactivate USB Sticks through GPO
Microsoft TweakUI Autoplay Registry
Microsoft Autostart Registry Key(s)
GFi Endpoint Security
Safeend Auditor and Safend Protector
NCC Group - Awareness Campaign
About Compass Security
The Job of a security specialist is like searching
in the fog. The more opaque the environment
the harder it is to find traces and establish
methods and tactics. A good compass can help
to determine the direction and choose a path
that will securely lead to the destination.
Compass Security Network Computing AG is
an incorporated company based in Rapperswil
(Lake of Zurich) Switzerland that specialises in
investigations. We carry out penetration tests
and security reviews for our clients, enabling
them to assess the security of their IT systems
against hacking attacks, as well as advising on
suitable measures to improve their defences.
Compass Security has considerable experience
in national and international projects. Close
collaboration with the technical universities of
Lucerne and Rapperswil enable Compass to
carry out applied research so that our security
specialists are always up-to-date.
Thanks to all Compass Security members who
helped me writing this paper through reviews
and coming up with new ideas.
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