Security Market Segment LS
Thursday, 07 January 2010 09:00

NIST-certified secure USB drives easily cracked

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A major flaw in the password handling procedures in some supposedly secure 'thumb drives' makes them trivially easy to unlock.

Recent research by the German security company Syss has uncovered a glaring hole in the security management of a variety of USB flash drives with AES 256-bit hardware encryption.

In a nutshell, the problem is in the communication between the password management software on the computer and the unlock code on the device.

You'll be amazed to know that no matter what the password, the unlock code sent to the device is always the same!

Vulnerable devices include Kingston's DataTraveler BlackBox, the SanDisk Cruzer Enterprise FIPS Edition and the Verbatim Corporate Secure FIPS Edition.

SanDisk, in its security bulletin offered a vague description of the problem "SanDisk has recently identified a potential vulnerability in the access control mechanism and has provided a product update to address the issue."  One can only wonder what the downloadable update does to change the unlock-code.

Similarly, Verbatim also only hinted at a problem and also offered a software-only solution.

Only Kingston has taken the issue seriously, issuing a worldwide recall for three of the nine products in their secured drive range.  "It has recently been brought to our attention that a skilled person with the proper tools and physical access to the drives may be able to gain unauthorized access to data contained on the following Kingston Secure USB drives: DataTraveler BlackBox (DTBB), DataTraveler Secure - Privacy Edition (DTSP) and DataTraveler Elite - Privacy Edition (DTEP)."

Clearly any security regime that handles password verification other than on the secured device is going to be susceptible to these kinds of attacks, but to claim NIST's FIPS 140-2 certification and wave it around like some banner of impenetrability, giving an aura of perfection is clearly over the top in this instance.

We await a more serious response from SanDisk and Verbatim, more in line with Kingston's product recall.  In the mean time, users might want to look at the IronKey range of devices.


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David Heath

David Heath has had a long and varied career in the IT industry having worked as a Pre-sales Network Engineer (remember Novell NetWare?), General Manager of IT&T for the TV Shopping Network, as a Technical manager in the Biometrics industry, and as a Technical Trainer and Instructional Designer in the industrial control sector. In all aspects, security has been a driving focus. Throughout his career, David has sought to inform and educate people and has done that through his writings and in more formal educational environments.

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