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Oh, The Humanity: You Can Now Instantly Kill A Computer For $50

Posted December 08, 2016 12:00 AM by Hannes

I recently took an interest in home defense—y’know, just in case. Inspired by a friend who lives way out in the country and keeps a Louisville Slugger in an umbrella stand by his front door, I decided to go the baseball bat route. While shopping for one on Amazon, I came across a line of polypropylene bats—some of which were a good 5” shorter than a regulation bat—made by Cold Steel. The company-provided description is laughable: in their words, coaches were coming to them looking for an “indestructible” bat, so they made them one that’s great for playing ball and can “even be used for self-defense.” It became immediately apparent, despite the ad copy, that this was a bat made for breaking skulls and kneecaps. It’s much heavier than a normal bat and is probably useless for baseball, and Cold Steel’s other products include brass knuckles, knives, machetes, blowguns, and tomahawks. I’m assuming the baseball shtick is for liability purposes.

I had the same thought when I recently read about a new commercialized version of the USB Killer, a “device designed to [test] the surge protection of electronics to their limits—and beyond.” An anonymous hacker going by the name Dark Purple developed the device last year, but the appropriately named company USBKill.com launched the €50 commercial product this fall. Most tech pundits seriously doubt the USB Killer’s advertised use: just as Cold Steel bats are covertly intended to whack people, the USB Killer is actually a weaponized USB stick designed to fry the crap out of unprotected electronics.

Hardware-wise, the USB Killer is relatively simple. As soon as it’s inserted into an unprotected port, a DC-DC converter draws power from the host device and stores it in a capacitor bank. When the bank reaches a -220 V potential, the Killer blasts the stored power into the host’s USB data lines. Unless the host is protected against overvoltage, the USB Killer will disable anything from the port itself to the entire hardware system. As this video shows, devices handle the overvoltage differently, and many newer phones and computers are completely immune to it.

Obviously, this device will probably see malicious use more often than not. One could imagine a punk kid frying his entire school’s electronics inventory, or a disgruntled employee doing the same to an unsuspecting employer. I could be wrong, but the “use this device to test for overvoltage protection” angle seems like a load of BS to cover the manufacturer’s behind. And the damage isn’t limited to $2,000 laptops—the rise of the IoT and increased connection means that more and more devices, including the majority of cars on the road, have USB ports and could easily suffer major damage. Hackers could easily disable necessary infrastructure like life-support machines or air traffic control systems for about $50. Imagine if the Killer was plugged into a USB power adapter and connected to mains.

USB sticks have long been covertly used for malicious activities. Malware-infected thumb drives look benign but can spread worms like wildfire, whether intentionally or not. USB drives were supposedly the first delivery method for the high-profile, controversial Stuxnet worm until its progenitors developed more sophisticated methods. The only true defense against malicious USBs is to either cap ports or train users to never, ever accept or insert unknown hardware. But the potential damage from giving the USB Killer to an unwitting accomplice is still the stuff of nightmares.

Image credit: John / CC BY 2.0

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#1

Re: Oh, The Humanity: You Can Now Instantly Kill A Computer For $50

12/08/2016 9:57 AM

...or you could just download Microsoft Windows and kill a computer for free.

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Re: Oh, The Humanity: You Can Now Instantly Kill A Computer For $50

12/08/2016 12:33 PM

Windows is fine. You just need to turn off or delete ~2/3's of it from well hidden control panels.

Once you clean out all the unneeded and unwanted crap it comes with its pretty good!

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#2

Re: Oh, The Humanity: You Can Now Instantly Kill A Computer For $50

12/08/2016 10:21 AM

Makes you wish someone would break into their factory and test a few of their computers.

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Re: Oh, The Humanity: You Can Now Instantly Kill A Computer For $50

12/08/2016 2:34 PM

From the website....

CE approved!....100% safe!....comes in its own protective, reusable casing....etc

Ahh huh.

What is interesting is the other product they offer which is a USB plug in shield you plug the USB killer into to protect the computer and test that the USB killer is working.

This doesn't seem like any sort of test product but something designed to take out a USB-equipped device. I don't see any need to test a computer's IO ports for example.

What IS interesting is that it could take down a computer with a simple repeated -200V decaying pulse, when I thought that the USB port interface section would be destroyed but isolation techniques employed inside a modern computer would protect it (opto-isolation, weak links that would fail providing isolation, etc).

Now that is something for a meaningful discussion. What would realistically be damaged inside the computer?

What about media storage devices like the hard drive or sim cards on cellphones being damaged? Possible media controller damage is mentioned on the site. Damaging hardware is inconvenient but damaging data is a serious threat.

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Re: Oh, The Humanity: You Can Now Instantly Kill A Computer For $50

12/09/2016 4:48 AM

I can do it cheaper
A lot more fun too.

Del

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Re: Oh, The Humanity: You Can Now Instantly Kill A Computer For $50

12/09/2016 11:19 AM

A much more effective approach; so it is properly engineered.

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Re: Oh, The Humanity: You Can Now Instantly Kill A Computer For $50

12/09/2016 10:56 PM

Del, which one of your bows did you use to shoot them arrows ?

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Re: Oh, The Humanity: You Can Now Instantly Kill A Computer For $50

12/10/2016 4:16 AM

No idea, it was ages ago! Any of 'em would do it tho'
Del

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#7

Re: Oh, The Humanity: You Can Now Instantly Kill A Computer For $50

12/09/2016 3:12 PM

I had a computer that killed itself. Committed suicide, sort of. After eating a couple of power supplies the last replacement fried all the electronics, including all the drives. I could salvage nothing from it.

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Re: Oh, The Humanity: You Can Now Instantly Kill A Computer For $50

12/09/2016 9:10 PM

I'm thinking the last power supply was avenging the demise of its comrades.

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