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USBHarpoon – when the danger lurks in your USB cable

Everyone uses them and they are basically – well everywhere. They are small, practical, and you never manage to enter them the correct way the first time. We are of course talking about USB cables.

Whether you notice it or not, you normally always have one handy. Be it to charge your phone, to connect some device to your PC, or for any other purpose; USB cables are pretty much everywhere.

USBHarpoon = BadUSB but more evil

You probably know the situation: You’re having your friends over and at least one of them is running low in their phone’s battery life. No problem, right? After all, you can just tell him to plug his phone into your PC and charge it up.

This might not be such a good idea in the future: Researchers managed to take the rather well-known BadUSB attack and managed to transfer it into a normal USB cable. The new attack is called USBHarpoon and can infect a PC in a matter of seconds.

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Where the danger lurks

Unlike USB sticks people are not very suspicious of charging cables. After all, they normally are only there to transfer data or charge gadgets and are no data storage devices. This makes it the perfect tool for an attack. What’s even worse is that the attack would work on all kind of USB cables and platforms – so not even Mac and Linux devices would be safe.

The cable has a modified firmware as well as modified connectors. This solves an issue other researchers had: While they were able to modify a cable in order to use it for attacks, they didn’t quite manage to also perform its original function, namely charging things up. On the blog Vincent Yiu says: “My team of friends has managed to weaponize this capability to make a fully working USB cable also a compatible HID device.”

Not completely invisible yet

Right now you would need to launch commands that actually download and execute the payload. While this can be done, potential victims looking at the PC screen would actually notice that something is awry – at least for now. The researchers behind the malicious cable are also working on delaying the action or using Bluetooth signals to trigger the attack from afar and at a convenient time.

This post is also available in: German

EMEA & APAC Content Manager @ Norton & Avira | Gamer. Geek. Tech addict.