The difference between a token and a flash drive. Navigation menu

Download the SecSign ID app on your phone and test the login or contact us for more information Test the login For many years, data security experts have been campaigning to convince companies not to allow their employees to connect USB sticks or other peripheral USB devices to enterprise computers.

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Now, however, they are faced with an alarming trend that threatens to undo all of those efforts and heighten the risks of viruses and malware that can lead to costly breaches of confidential company data. This is one of the reasons why some companies have chosen to install computer systems without USB ports, to prevent this kind of connectivity.

However, a more recent development is the move by some companies toward USB keys or tokens to provide authentication security that protects access to enterprise user accounts for websites, software, systems, and networks.

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Rather than discourage and reject the potential security risks that USB connectivity creates, some companies, including tech industry leaders like Google, are actually embracing vulnerable USB technology in a misguided effort to boost security.

If it sounds counter-intuitive and potentially self-defeating, that is because it is.


When applied, the U2F standard ensures that two-factor authentication is used for login security by requiring both a knowledge factor password and a physical factor USB key or token in order to authenticate access to a secured account or service.

It also ensures that access is granted only after verifying that the login site or service is truly a legitimate property.

Inside the plastic casing is a small printed circuit board, which has some power circuitry and a small number of surface-mounted integrated circuits ICs. Drives typically use the USB mass storage device class to communicate with the host. These had limited capacity, were slow for both reading and writing, required complex high-voltage drive circuitry, and could be re-written only after erasing the entire contents of the chip. Hardware designers later developed EEPROMs with the erasure region broken up into smaller "fields" that could be erased individually without affecting the others. Altering the contents of a particular memory location involved copying the entire field into an off-chip buffer memory, erasing the field, modifying the data as required in the buffer, and re-writing it into the same field.

If you use the difference between a token and a flash drive technology that still requires an ID and password combination for the login process—even with a required USB device as a second authentication factor—you are still inviting attacks on your login server, and your first authentication factor is still a prime target for attackers.

There are numerous additional risks introduced by the use of USB keys or tokens that extend far beyond user logins and into major threats to personal and enterprise data security.

It is specially built to store digital signature certificates. It is a general storage device used to store any type of file. It contains special software to recognise and open digital signatures.

As CBS news reported in July ofKarsten Nohl and Jokob Lell of security firm Security Research Labs the difference between a token and a flash drive that this firmware vulnerability could allow USB devices to be reprogrammed to steal the contents of anything written to the drives and spread malicious code to any PC that these devices touch.

Much like self-replicating computer viruses that once spread through the insertion of floppy disks into disk drives in the past, USB malware can potentially infect systems and easily replicate itself and spread to other devices.

  • A USB token is a physical device that is used to establish personal identity without use of a password to access a network.
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  • What is a USB Token? - Definition from Techopedia
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Nohl and Lell identified several ways that infected USB devices can behave maliciously. These dangers are underscored by the fact that they are essentially undetectable.

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And, since these changes occur at the firmware level, antivirus or malware tests cannot detect it. Of course, some USB devices do not have reprogrammable firmware, so not every device may be vulnerable in this way.

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However, users are ultimately at the mercy of manufacturers. Moreover, the potential risks of USB technology are not limited to firmware vulnerabilities. The mere use and availability of USB connections and devices poses similar, disturbing data security risks.

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  • windows - Use standard USB flash disk as security token - Server Fault
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He reports that both Windows and OS X systems can be compromised, which highlights the troubling and universal risks that the use of USB technology creates. Of course, the risks of using USB devices can also be simpler and more mundane but no less threatening to individual privacy or enterprise data security.

As USB drives and devices have grown in popularity, so have the incidents of people forgetting them and leaving them behind.

USB Token for Digital Signature

According to Norton. Even if a user never forgets or leaves behind a USB key or token, the mere the difference between a token and a flash drive of connecting it to a machine can potentially lead to malware infection and a data security breach.

Each device can support a different key and digital certificate storage formats. The most secure method is to store the private key and public key certificates on a USB cryptographic device also commonly referred to as a security token, hardware token or a cryptographic token. The other method of storing private keys and digital certificates is to use a software implementation of the PKCS 12 standard that introduces the Personal Information Exchange Syntax in a form of password protected data file.

This is why experts like the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team US-CERT recommend that users never connect USB devices to untrustworthy machines like public computer kiosks and never connect them to home or enterprise systems unless they know and trust every connection that the device has ever made.

This allows secured services to require a second, physical authentication factor that is physically separated from the login process and that cannot be compromised through hacking, phishing, or malware of any kind.

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It also avoids the risks introduced by USB keys or tokens because there is no requirement that the mobile device be connected to a computer in order to verify identity, and a patented mechanism protects the private key from brute force attack, even if the mobile device is lost or stolen. Importantly, there is no password or any sensitive credential that must be entered through the login mechanism, transmitted to a server, or stored on a server for the purpose of verifying identity.

Identify verification occurs solely on the mobile device with the entry of a simple 4-digit PIN or fingerprint scan provided by the user.

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Final verification is provided by confirming a visual access symbol that matches one shown on the login screen of the secured service. This out-of-band physical authentication process makes it impossible for attackers to compromise user logins because there are no sensitive credentials that they can steal during entry, transmission, or storage.

Why USB Authentication Keys and Tokens are a Bad Idea

And, ultimately, this also means that logins and servers using public key cryptography no longer provide any incentive for attackers to target them. It removes the vulnerable mechanisms, processes, and credentials that enable attacks against user logins, and it guarantees that your user accounts cannot be compromised.

And to learn more about secure authentication with public key cryptography, visit the SecSign Technologies website to watch an introductory video and learn more details about the SecSign ID approach to login and authentication security.

About SecSign Technologies SecSign Technologies is a sister company of SecCommerce Informationssysteme GmbH, a pioneer of cryptography solutions with more than 16 years of experience in developing public key infrastructure PKIelectronic signature, and smart card technologies.