Endpoint Security: How to Control USB Devices

Shopping for stronger USB port control? Some criteria to consider when it’s time to rein in thumb drives and other pesky critters

By Rick Cook
Thu, January 17, 2008

CSO — USB ports are a fact of life in modern IT--which means they are also a headache for every IT manager.

“You’ve got to live with USB ports, and you’ve got to secure them,” says Ari Tammam, VP of alliances at Promisec, a maker of endpoint control software. “I don’t think you can get away with blocking them for everyone.”

The USB port control native to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 is extremely limited. You can disable ports or render them read-only, but finer control over allowed devices or file types is lacking.  However, there are a number of third-party applications that give you control over your USB ports with varying degrees of granularity.

One of the features of the USB hardware specification is that each device tells the system what kind of device it is as part of the connection process. Some manufacturers take advantage of this to let you block specific kinds of devices on specific ports. For instance, you might opt to allow a USB mouse on any port, but never allow thumb drives. But remember, the principle of least privilege applies with a vengeance to USB ports. Generally, the question shouldn’t be “what do you want to block?”; it’s “what do you want to allow?”

Some manufacturers go much further with the controls they allow, and let you require “a specific device with a specific serial number linked to a specific user” to use a particular port, says Gil Sever, CEO of the endpoint security tools manufacturer Safend. You might also mark certain devices as read-only or specify which kinds of files can be read and written through a given USB port. This helps prevent two security risks: someone loading rogue programs into the system through the port, or someone taking out unauthorized kinds of data. For example, a user may be authorized to download Excel (.xls) or Word (.doc) files, but not database files.

Some products also block USB ports at the OS level--that is, they become part of the connection process and won’t allow specific kinds of devices to connect on any port on the network. Others will only allow certain specific devices while blocking other devices of that class. Thus the user can download files to, say, the disk drive in her laptop, but to no other USB disk drive. Alternately, you could set things up such that only a thumb drive encrypted with corporate-approved encryption and regi

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