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USB Stick Shocks Computers to Digital Death

USB thumb drives can be set up to quickly infect a computer with malware, but that's normally the worst you could expect if you plugged a drive of unknown origin into your PC. But now a security researcher in Russia has rigged up a flash drive to fry any device into which it's plugged in a matter of seconds.

An IBM ThinkPad, after the USB Killer delivers its shocking payload. Credit: YouTube

(Image credit: An IBM ThinkPad, after the USB Killer delivers its shocking payload. Credit: YouTube)

The drive sends a negative 220-volt electric surge into a USB port, enough to destroy the circuits on a computer's motherboard, reports security blogger Graham Cluley. The drive's maker goes by the alias Dark Purple, and claims that USB Killer v2.0's destruction isn't limited to computers, but almost any hardware equipped with a USB port. (Most computers, and many other electronic devices, use 5 volts of current.)

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USB Killer 2.0 is the successor to Dark Purple's first USB Killer, which sent only negative 110 Volts into devices and which apparently wasn't strong enough to do much more than brick a specific USB port. 

Just how quickly does USB Killer v2.0 work? Here's a video of it in action, posted to YouTube by Dark Purple himself:

This might sound like an easy way to wipe a hard drive, or for anyone to remove all traces of their activity on a computer, but Dark Purple claimed in a Russian-language blog post that it is "extremely unlikely" his pocket-sized disruption device actually damages hard drives. It may not even damage CPUs.

But it's still disconcerting to know that a pocket-sized device might be enough to, at least temporarily, disable your PC, server or in-car navigation and entertainment console. This just adds to the list of reasons why businesses and venues that have hardware with accessible USB ports should put those ports behind locks or disable the ports altogether.

Henry T. Casey

Henry is an editor writer at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and Apple. Prior to joining Tom's Guide — where he's the self-described Rare Oreo Expert — he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. You can find him at your local pro wrestling events, and looking for the headphone adapter that he unplugged from his iPhone.