Column: USB and the CIA

Loose Wire — How to Steal CIA Secrets: It’s as easy as USB; Universal Serial Bus drives are getting small enough to hide in coffee mugs, and you can attach them to most computers and all sorts of other gadgets

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 5 June 2003 of edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review , (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
I got some flak last time I was rude about how implausible technology is in Hollywood movies, even supposedly authentic fare such as Minority Report, The Bourne Identity and Mary Poppins. One comment was “grab a beer and chill out, dude, it’s only a movie,” though that doesn’t count because it was from my mother.

But I can’t help venting my spleen, if that’s what you do with spleen, after watching The Recruit with Al Pacino and Colin Farrell. It’s a thriller revolving around a recruit (no, really) to the Central Intelligence Agency trying to smuggle a top secret program out of CIA headquarters at Langley. There are some neat gadgets in there, such as biodegradable bugs and a program that hijacks nearby television screens. But the premise is that it’s well nigh impossible to steal data from the CIA since none of its computers have floppy drives, printers or (presumably, if we’re going to get finicky) infrared ports or Bluetooth dongles. In short, how do you transfer data if you can’t download it? I wanted to shout out suggestions but my friends, alerted by previous visits to the cinema, had gagged me beforehand.

Anyway, not a bad idea and not a bad movie. Except (skip the rest of this paragraph if you intend to watch the movie) someone succeeds in downloading the top secret program by plugging a USB drive into a USB socket on a CIA computer (USB is a commonly used port that allows users to connect gadgets to their computer). She then hides the said drive — about the size of a lighter — in her aluminium coffee mug. I mean, duh! I can’t believe they have USB sockets in Langley and that the X-ray machine confuses a gadget for coffee dregs. Tsk.

Anyway, it made me realize that Hollywood really, really needs my help in making their scripts believable. So here are some ideas for future movies, all involving existing USB gadgets:

— Our hero penetrates high-security installation, wanders nonchalantly up to floppy-less computer, and accesses USB port (inexplicably left on computer despite it being responsible for massive security breach as revealed in The Recruit). Uncoils USB cable from watch strap, plugs into USB port, downloads data into USB watch from German company LAKS (between $40 and $95 from

— Our hero wanders nonchalantly up to floppy-less computer, plugs USB drive into USB port (amazingly still there despite aforementioned movie and pioneering column from tech writer), and accesses own e-mail via newly released PocoMail PE ($40 from Okay, this doesn’t sound that wild, but it’s a great plot twist if you’re using someone else’s computer and they don’t have an e-mail program you need, or, in the case of our hero, you don’t want to leave any trace of yourself (say at an Internet cafe or a public library).

— Our hero has made off with the data on a USB drive. But he’s caught by the bad guys. Being avid readers of this column, they know what to look for and quickly locate the USB drive. But our hero’s drive is a bit different: Made by Singapore’s Trek 2000 International (, his ThumbDrive Touch has a silver pad that requires the user’s thumbprint before data can be accessed. Unfortunately for our hero, but great for a plot twist, the baddies simply cut off his thumb and plonk it on the biometric pad.

— Armed with a $100 MP306 USB drive from Azio Technologies (www. 306.asp), our hero fails to access the CIA computer because his nemesis has installed a SecuriKey Computer Protection System, Personal Edition ($130 from Griffin Technologies at This looks just like a USB drive but in fact works like a key: If it’s not plugged into the computer, then the computer locks up. Confounded, our hero sucks his remaining thumb and admires the silver metal mini-briefcase that the SecuriKey dongle comes in. Resigned, our hero reaches for his Azio USB drive, dons earphones, kicks back and listens to MP3 music files stored on the drive. Fiddling with the built-in equalizer for improved playback quality, he hears footsteps and quickly switches the USB drive to recorder mode to eavesdrop on two CIA officers passing by, griping about their canteen lunch.

Okay, so not all these plots will win prizes. But one thing I’m willing to bet my DVD collection on: USB drives will replace floppy drives, those flat disks of old, as PC manufacturers add USB ports to new models and remove external disk drives. Prices will drop further, meaning gadgets smaller than lighters will carry gigabytes of data for peanuts. Already you can buy a 1 gigabyte model for $300: Expect to pay half that in a year or less. They will be so cheap people will give them away: Visitors to a recent launch in Britain of Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 were given freebie press bags with 32-megabyte USB drives inside.

In future, folk will carry around all their programs and data aboard one dongle and run it from any computer they come across, effectively personalizing the computer for however long they’re sitting at it, but without leaving any trace. Wait for the futuristic movie where everyone’s life is stored on a USB drive and every computer in the world is for public consumption. Interested? Call my agent.

26. May 2003 by jeremy
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One Comment

  1. RE:Column: USB and the CIA (25 May 2003). Laks is not a German company. It is Austrian.