There’s no escaping the fact that cyber attacks are a major problem. Estimates suggest that this year they are likely to cost the global economy over $2 trillion, a fourfold increase since 2015. With the “internet of things” gradually increasing the number of devices that are becoming open to attack, it’s certainly not an issue that’s just going to go away.

But while the large organisations that are usual targets of these attacks are taking all the precautions they can to protect their networks, there is a definite chink in their armour. One of the most common ways that viruses and other malware can spread is through infected flash drives and external hard drives. And once it’s introduced into a network, it can spell big trouble ahead.

The Major Threats

In a report by IT security experts Kaspersky, it was found that the malware most commonly spread in this way includes cryptocurrency mining software and the Windows LNK family of Trojans.

For this reason, most large corporations now have very restrictive policies concerning the use of USB drives, either insisting on using heavily encrypted flash drives or by banning their use altogether. The increasing reliance on the cloud for file storage and sharing has obviously also played an important role in sidestepping this threat.

For the individual user of USB devices, there is also a considerable risk that they may inadvertently introduce some malware into their own system, from which it could easily spread and multiply. Sometimes this can be caused by simple curiosity. The same Kaspersky report told of an experiment carried out by the University of Illinois in which around 300 unmarked USB drives were left around the campus. 98% of them were picked up and almost half of these were plugged in to see what they contained.

Safety First

But, assuming you’re not the kind of person who’d do something so foolish however curious you are, there are two key ways to protect yourself from being an unwitting victim or helping to spread a cyber attack. The first is to only ever use devices with a high level of encryption and other security measures.

Manufacturers are obviously conscious of this increasing need for device security and among the solutions now available is a USB drive that uses iris identification, others that feature fingerprint recognition and some that come with smart cards to unlock them.

It’s also a good idea to incorporate another line of defence in the form of a Virtual Private Network to connect to the internet. These not only maintain the anonymity of your IP address, but they also have their own very strong encryption built in. With so many VPN providers available now, you will have plenty of choices for a relatively low cost.

So, while the threat of cyber attacks making it through defences via USB devices is a real one, it’s reassuring to know that there are steps you can take to keep yourself safe – and the more of them that you take, the better.