“Plug in the USB-fan.”
These would be the famous last words of a journalist at the Singapore summit moments before their computer was compromised.
In the goody bag of treats that journalists received while covering the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was a seemingly harmless blue fan powered by mini USB.
How convenient. The event was high stakes. The temperature reached 91 degrees. There were press-scrums.
But experts warned that the USB powered fans could create a virtual skull and bones for anyone who plugged them in.
Media goody bag: Mini USB fan, hand-held fan with #TrumpKim on either side to blow around all the hot air.... and a fun guide to Sentosa. NB: that's not the delegations playing beach volleyball. pic.twitter.com/fbdKVzr0Cn— Amanda Drury (@MandyCNBC) June 10, 2018
So, um, summit journalists. Do not plug this in. Do not keep it. Drop it in a public trash can or send it to your friendly neighborhood security researcher. Call any computer science department and donate it for a class exercise. I’d be glad to take one off your hands, btw. https://t.co/vz8xjUIjVz— Barton Gellman (@bartongellman) June 11, 2018
Experts have long warned against journalists – or anyone – plugging in free USB devices they receive at high profile events. During the G20 summit of world leaders in 2013, Russia reportedly gave delegates and foreign leaders infected USB pen drives.
But even devices found on the street can be dangerous. In 2016, a group of researchers dropped nearly 300 USB sticks at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus during a social experiment. The group did not need a long time to test the results. It took under six minutes for the first person to plug in the USB drives.
This tweet sort of went viral. Viral within the cyber security community that is. Perfectly illustrating the gap between journalists ("Cool fan!") and our industry ("Red Alert!"). https://t.co/sqUxNpoRNA— Rickey Gevers (@UID_) June 12, 2018
A free USB fan for journalists covering talks in Singapore, how cool! (Because it’s impossible for USB devices to spread malware or exfiltrate data, right?) https://t.co/Hin3erdWbQ— Stephen Cobb (@zcobb) June 10, 2018
It’s unknown if any of the journalists plugged in the USB fans. But important questions remain unanswered. Do the fans work on the new line of USB-free Mac laptops? Perhaps an adapter is coming soon.