Botswana Traveler

An American explores the desert and the delta

Keep your USB Thumbdrive safe from viruses while traveling

Posted on | August 28, 2009 | 7 Comments

The thumbdrive.  So useful, yet so dangerous.

The thumbdrive. So useful, yet so dangerous.

If you’ve ever used an internet cafe computer, you know the problem.  You insert your thumbdrive in the public computer to quickly access your resume or find a picture of your nephew and next time you use it at home, you cherished home PC slows to a crawl as it is infected with gobs of viruses.  I’ve spent the last 3 days trying to find a solution to this problem as it happens to me in Botswana all the time.  The best (free) solution to this problem I’ve found is the Panda USB Vaccine.  Read on for instructions and information about why this solution works for me.

The Problem

If you use a thumbdrive (aka USB memory stick, USB key, Pen-drive, flash drive) on any public computer in Africa, it will be infected with a virus.  Guaranteed.  There are 2 ways to prevent this:

  1. Buy a thumbdrive with a write-protect switch and always leave it write-protected at a public computer.  This way, a virus can never infect the thumbdrive because it can never write it’s nasty files to the drive, but you will be able to access everything you put on the drive.  But what if you want to backup pictures to the disk or save a file you downloaded while traveling? There’s no way to do this without opening the door for infection.
  2. Pay for a program like DriveSentry that will essentially write-protect the thumbdrive by disallowing any program to write to the drive without your authorization.  It is like the nagging security warnings in Vista – “confirm or deny!”.  This is a great idea, except it costs money.

I already have 5 or 6 thumbdrives floating around my house, I don’t want to buy another.  And paying more than the cost of the drive to keep viruses off of it seems absurd.  So how do you keep viruses from infecting your thumbdrive?

You don’t.  You let them infect the drive.  Think about it – why do you care that your drive has viruses on it?  The only time you care is when your thumbdrive infects other computers – most importantly, YOUR computer.  And this is where a solution can be found.

How to Keep Your Thumbdrive from Infecting Your Home PC

This takes some thumbdrive-prep before leaving home.  Follow these steps:

  1. Download Panda USB Vaccine
  2. Install the program
  3. Insert USB Thumbdrive
  4. Run “Panda USB Vaccine”. The bottom half of the interface is for the USB drive vaccination.  Select the USB drive from the pull-down menu (it is likely already selected for you) and click Vaccinate USB.

How does this program “vaccinate” your USB thumbdrive from viruses?  It doesn’t – it only keeps your computer from automatically infecting itself with those viruses once you get home.  It puts a dummy file of the Autorun.inf file on your drive which cannot be easily deleted, moved, or modified.  This prevents a virus from executing it’s most reliable delivery method: exploiting the autorun feature in Windows.

Panda USB Vaccination***Alert! Extra nerdy explaination ahead – skip this paragraph if you don’t care how this works!!***In order to infect your computer, the virus on your thumbdrive must run a program.  If your computer has Autorun enabled (which it likely does), Windows will look on the thumbdrive for a file called Autorun.inf which tells it how to automatically run the files on this drive.  This feature is super-cool for things like installation CDs or DVD movies, which will open themselves or play automatically when inserted in your computer.  This way, the user only has to pop in the disk and the computer pops up a window with what you likely want to do.  Virus writers exploit this feature and tell your thumbdrive to automatically run their virus program, spreading it’s nastiness all over your computer without you even knowing.  Even if you have autorun disabled, this file will run automatically if you try to access the thumbdrive by going to “My Computer” and clicking on the thumbdrive icon.  ***End nerdiness***

Once you have “vaccinated” your USB drive, it will no longer automatically infect computers it is plugged into – the fake Autorun.inf file blocks that from happening!  Your thumbdrive will, however, still be loaded with viruses after a visit to the internet cafe.  Which leads us to…

The Important Final Step

When you return home from your trip (or from your local internet cafe), the FIRST THING you should do when using your USB thumbdrive is scan it for viruses with the scanner on your home PC or laptop (I use Avira – it is free).  Update your virus definitions, then run a scan on the drive and have it repair or quarantine any viruses it finds.  After this scan, you should be virus free!

Extra note:  The Panda USB Vaccine can also vaccinate your computer.  It accomplishes this by disabling autorun on all your drives, meaning any thumbdrive plugged into your PC will not automatically load itself using the Autorun.inf feature.  This does protect your PC from automatically contracting viruses from strange thumbdrives and if you plug a lot of thumbdrives into your computer, you may wish to do the PC vaccination.  However, this will mean CDs will not autoload, so when you pop in that Microsoft Office disc, you’ll have to navigate through My Computer to find the setup or install file to make it work.  This is kind of a hassle, so it is up to you if you want to do this vaccination.


7 Responses to “Keep your USB Thumbdrive safe from viruses while traveling”

  1. Polprav
    October 17th, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

  2. TheTraveler
    October 18th, 2009 @ 7:07 am

    No problem Polprav!

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    Keep your USB Thumbdrive safe from viruses while traveling : Botswana Traveler…

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