When is it ethical to release details of a discovered vulnerability to the public? That’s the question raised by security writer Graham Cluley about the actions of two researchers who found a bug in the firmware of some USB memory sticks.

USB sticks are notorious for being able to take data out of a company, as well as being a potential source of infection. One of the problems is that the firmware that comes on every memory stick can  allow hackers to inject malicious codes into PCs, and from there into data centres.

A vulnerability dubbed BadUSB was revealed but not detailed at the recent Black Hat conference in Las Vegas.

But, Cluley says, two researchers said last week they’ve posted the code at Github. “The belief we have is that all of this should be public. It shouldn’t be held back. So we’re releasing everything we’ve got,” one researcher told an audience last week at DerbyCon. “This was largely inspired by the fact that [SR Labs] didn’t release their material. If you’re going to prove that there’s a flaw, you need to release the material so people can defend against it.”

However according to Cluley, this particular vulnerability can’t be defeated, even if the memory stick is wiped — although it isn’t clear if the fault in the original code is fixed why that wouldn’t solve the problem, at least for new devices. Millions of older USB sticks, of course, would still be capable of infection.

As Cluley notes, releasing the BadUSB code on GitHub means that hackers now can learn how to  carry out exploits. On the other hand, he also admits it will also help interested researchers solve the problem.

“With the cat now out of the bag,” he writes, “we should all be putting pressure on USB manufacturers to get their act together.”

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Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com