What is USB Dead Drop?

What is USB Dead Drop

USB dead drop is an offline, peer-to-peer file sharing network. Anonymous individuals come together to share information in a public space using a USB drive. The flash drive is usually mounted to an outdoor brick wall and permanently left there by using concrete.

The name itself comes from the dead drop method of espionage communication where in a similar fashion individuals exchange information through a mutual meeting space but without ever actually interacting with one another.

The first USB dead drop network consisted of five USB devices and began in October 2010 in New York by Berlin based artist Aram Bartholl, a member of New York’s Fat lab art and technology collective. Anyone can come and drop or find files on a dead drop by directly plugging their laptop, tablet, or smartphone into the USB drive in the wall to share their files and data with one another. Every USB dead drop is installed without any files except for a readme.txt file that explains what the project is about and how it works.

This is just another way of expressing the “off the grid” concept of interconnected networks among peers either anonymously or through a planned interaction. At one point, far before the internet was ever created or even conceptualized, many people communicated with one another through something called FidoNet. You set up your home computer with a dialup modem (much like today) and then install the FidoNet software on it. The FidoNet software was a lot like a modern day discussions forum where you could exchange information through discussion posts, emails, and even file transfers.

On your computer, you could dial up the remote computer with your modem and then log into the FidoNet software where you could read through and contribute content on the forum or “bulletin board” as it was called back then. Something that was very popular was the text based role playing games that private individuals would code and then let you download for free.

I’m not sure if there are any FidoNet type systems still set up and running like they were back them, but if you think about it you still had to be on their grid or telephone network in order to actually use it. Nowadays people are coming up with all kinds of interesting and unique ways of communicating without being on the grid and that also involves users taking to the outdoors and doing things offline. The concept is almost contradictory. The idea of communicating outside of the most connected network in the world sounds almost impossible. But it’s not. USB dead drop is a testament to that.

It’s probably going to be a little difficult for some people to mount a USB flash drive into a brick wall effectively. In my opinion, you should move the dead drop away from its permanent fixation on a brick wall. That way, you can actually move the location of your USB dead drop in case some random troll comes along and deletes all of your files or installed some pretty nasty malware on it. If you want the location of your USB flash drive to be public, then you can publish the location on the dead drop website or as a geocache.

Also, if you would like to limit the actual number of people who have full access to you USB dead drop you can use the public library to communicate its location. Decide on an obscure and very dull book that you are confident no one will ever actually want to read from the reference section of the library or the main branch of the public library. As long as everyone in the group with whom you wish to communicate the location of your usb drive knows which book to use, you can use a book cipher to encrypt the coordinates of your usb dead drop. Pretty cool stuff so far huh? It gets even better.

Now that you have chosen a location and a method of communicating the coordinates, you’ll need to decide on a container for your usb drive. I’d suggest actually trying to use a micro SD to USB adapter with whatever amount of memory you’d like. This would probably be a lot more convenient to use because it will probably be impractical to lug around a laptop to the remote location instead of just bringing your smartphone instead. That is of course, unless your recipients actually have something like a USB OTG cable.

But in this case, you can simply swap out the smartphone’s memory to the dead drop’s micro SD card and once the files have been uploaded or transferred, just put it back where you found it and you’re done. Don’t forget to remove the USB dead drop micro-SD and replace it with the smart phone’s original micro-SD. Reinsert the USB dead drop’s micro-SD into the adapter, put it back in its container, and leave it for the next person to use. For geocachers, you may elect not to use a traditional log book and instead make a text file on the flash drive where people can log their visits.

Pros and Cons

Publicly and privately available points give anyone the ability to save and transfer data anonymously and free of charge. Such offline networks are vulnerable to the following examples of threats:

  • Physical destruction: anyone can destroy a dead drop using pliers or a hammer, by high voltage from a static field, with high temperature from a blowtorch, or other methods of physical force.
  • Software destruction: anyone can erase all of the data by deletion or drive formatting, or by encrypting the data or the whole drive and hiding the key.
  • Espionage: anyone can intentionally or unintentionally infect it with malwares such as Trojan horse or key logger.
  • Disclosure: anyone can disclose the location of a private dead drop by shadowing people and publishing coordinates in a public place.

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Vincent Clarke

Vincent Clarke is the Universal Serial Bus (USB) Guru for USBtips.com. When he's not writing tutorials and catching up on the latest USB news, Vincent is busy preparing his next blog post and answering USB questions from his readers and subscribers.

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