Hide Your Flash Drive in Plain Sight

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With various governments passing laws demanding access to your encrypted data 1), 2), 3), it is time for some 'security by obscurity.'

This 'Ible is about making a USB flash drive which looks just like a cable. You can drape it out the back of your desk, leave it lying on the floor or coil it up and store it in your magic knot of cables. (If you don't have a magic knot of cables, then start collecting now: you can never have too many random cables.) Once the cable is where folk expect to see a cable, it just becomes invisible and your data is safe (well, safer).

For this, you will need

one of the mini USB flash drives which are not much bigger than a USB connector
cheap donor cable
a craft knife or a wide-bladed chisel
a pair of pliers or wirecutters
suitable glue (polystyrene cement, hot melt, cyanoacrylate or epoxy)
either a small spring clamp, or five minutes to spend holding things together.

I bought my donor cables from the local Two Dollar shop, but these ones look like they'd work.

For the USB flash drive, there are all sorts of options around. I found these two on AliExpress while I was writing this 'Ible.

Cheap ones
Expensive ones

I have no connection with any of the above links. They are just the result of a quick search for something which looked like I had used.


Supplies:

Step 1: Strip the Drives

There are two good reasons to choose the cheapest drives you can find. Firstly, the more expensive "Name" brand ones often have the capacity etched onto the metal of the connector which can be noticeable if you are looking for it. Secondly, the cheaper the drive, the cheaper the housing. With the drives I used, the plastic of the molded housing did not adhere to the metal of the connector at all.

I braced the drive on a piece of scrap wood and gently slid a chisel down the connector and into the plastic covering. That pared off one side of the plastic and the whole shell could be removed, leaving two small bits of scrap plastic and the core flash drive as seen in the third picture above.

The downside of using cheap drives is their lower reliability and the possibility of data loss. "If you only have one backup then you don't have a backup." But security, ease of construction and low-cost should allow you to make several devices and have multiple backups.

Step 2: Crack the Cable Shell

If the donor cable has a cover which is in two parts, gently work the blade of a chisel into the join and slightly twist it to pop the two halves apart. Even if the shell halves were glued together this should be enough to break the bond. This is another good reason to choose the cheapest cables you can find, as they are likely to have cheaper and weaker assembly methods.

Once the shells are separated, use a pair of pliers or wire-cutters to remove the old connector. Make sure that you leave whatever interaction there was between the cable and the strain relief, as that is what will hold the whole thing together. The third and fourth pictures above have the relevant bits highlighted.

Step 3: Or Cut the Molded Plug

Some of the cheap cables (most actually) have a plug cover which is molded onto the connector. (From which one can assume that this is a cheaper production method.)

I used a newly sharpened chisel to cut down through the rubbery plastic to the metal housing of the plug. Using a wide chisel meant that I could align the cut with the mold-line of the plug. Having the split on the mold-line makes it harder to see any imperfections when the plug is glued back together.

Once the cut is far enough along to enable the rubber to be peeled back, get in with a pair of pliers and cut the wires holding the old connector. If you can't reach down far enough, it might be possible to disassemble the connector in situ as shown in the last two photographs above.

Step 4: Assemble

Then stick the drive into the emptied plug using an appropriate glue.

I've used different glues with different host plugs.

The smooth plastic shells which pop-apart glue well with either superglue (cyanoacrylate) or polystyrene cement, while I've found that I needed hot-melt glue to get a decent result with the more rubbery plastics. Two-part epoxy would probably work well with both, but is a nuisance to use.

If you are using a melting-glue, the "CoolShot" brand which melts at a lower temperature is useful. It seemed to remain soft for longer while assembling the drive and shell, and worked with thinner layers than the ordinary hot-melt glue, which left a better-looking joint.

(I have no connection with CoolShot either)

Step 5: Conceal the Results and Conclusion

Now you have a cable where one end is a concealed flash drive. If it were plugged into a machine, then the OS would probably recognize it as a memory device and report that fact, so we want to reduce the chance of that happening. Tying the cable up in a bundle and putting a note on it saying that it doesn't work properly should deter most folk from trying it. Having a reputation as a bad person from whom to borrow cables is also effective.

Some final notes:-
some of the cables I used had a fabric covering, and this did not respond well to the treatment, as can be seen in the second photograph above. This might actually add to the plausibility of unreliability attached to the hidden cable.
it's not just printer and charger cables:- i even found a cheap PS2/USB connector which was changed (third photo)
having a variety of different cables makes it easier to remember which archive is stored on which device, and also provides a believable nest of cables.

Good luck, and do post a photo if you try it :-)

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    28 Discussions

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    rdszablewski

    4 weeks ago

    Neat idea, but If I had a cable lying around with "not working" on it, it would get thrown away.

    1 reply
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    Alex in NZrdszablewski

    Reply 4 weeks ago

    You could cultivate a reputation for being the kind of person who takes ill to randoms throwing away your stuff.
    Or write something different on the tag. Douglas Adams recommended "Beware of the Leopard."

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    mr.knex13

    3 months ago

    Doesn't it defeat the purpose of hiding it if we post a photo of it here? :P

    "Good luck, and do post a photo if you try it :-)"

    4 replies
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    DanC66mr.knex13

    Reply 3 months ago

    Conversations you could be having if Dirty Harry was your IT manager:
    "9 of these fake cables have an horrific number of viruses, malware and pop ups to some really salty websites. 1 doesn't. You've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do you, punk?"

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    Alex in NZDanC66

    Reply 3 months ago

    Very good. I laughed at that :-)

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    mr.knex13DanC66

    Reply 3 months ago

    That's too bad, I'm not feeling very lucky today.
    *makes another cable from the instructions conveniently available.*

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    Alex in NZmr.knex13

    Reply 3 months ago

    Double-bluff, mate. Have ten data cache cables full of encrypted data (or random numbers) and have an _even_weirder_ place to store the real data. That's the bit you keep secret. Or is it?
    EDIT TO ADD:- also, perhaps that's what I want? Maybe I'm trying to get folk to post their hiding places so that I know where to look for their data?
    "It's not 'are you paranoid?' It's 'are you paranoid enough?'" (from the movie Strange Days)

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    Alex in NZMisterHighway

    Reply 3 months ago

    Thank you :-)
    It's good fun for freaking people out as well: one time in a makerspace we had to use a USB stick to move the file over to the laser. I plugged the "cable" in to the host PC and _almost_ convinced the guy on the printer that I had an implanted drive in my forearm.

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    frarugi87

    Tip 3 months ago

    You can also make the drive inside the cable more secure through some SW like VeraCrypt. I never used it, but it was my top choice when I was researching ways to hide personal information on USB drives.

    1 reply
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    Alex in NZfrarugi87

    Reply 3 months ago

    Not used VeraCrypt, but there are laws (see the references in the Intro section) in some places which say "decrypt or go to jail forever" so I tend to avoid crypto. Plus, I would then have to remember the passphrase (since I don't trust password managers).
    Thanks for the suggestion though :-)

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    jstork1

    3 months ago on Step 5

    Nice idea.

    Another way I keep my data safe and easily removed and destroyed is that I removed my boot and storage drive from my laptop and am running it externally through a USB port (usb to 2.5 inch sata drive adapter ($5 and up on EBay)). It boots up and runs the OS through the USB. Not that I have any sensitive data, but if the Stormtroopers burst through my door, I could pull the USB out and quickly smash my drive. My backup drives are the same and stored where I have easy access, but can't be easily found. If I need to access my information on a different make or model of computer, I am still able to read the data files on my drive.

    The added bonus is that if my computer is stolen: it is useless without the drive and they would have to buy a drive and install an OS to use the computer.

    I don't have any sensitive data, but it is good to know such things. You never know when you might need it.

    1 reply
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    Alex in NZjstork1

    Reply 3 months ago

    Thanks for your comment :-). Having a pull-out USB sounds like a good idea, especially if you're confident of destroying it time. Again, there is always the struggle within data security of having lots of copies to make sure you _can_ always retrieve it, while making sure that everyone else _can't_. Not having any sensitive data is definitely a great idea.
    Pretty much the fundamental details of security are given here:- xkcd.com/538
    Hover the mouse pointer over the cartoon to get the second punchline.

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    Taz-Hood

    3 months ago

    At first I was puzzled as to why I would ever *need* to hide a USB drive, but I'm security-conscious and live with concerns about being burglarized. I have tons of valuable stereo and camera equipment, among other things. The first step I need to take is to prepare a photographed inventory, and I should keep a copy of that inventory on a couple of USB drives, with one in our safety deposit box and another hidden as you've suggested amidst a bunch of cables. An inventory is essential if my insurance company is to honor any claims, and recording serial numbers is important if there is any hope of assisting the police in retrieving stolen property. Thank you for this excellent Instructable, and I hope you'll give thought to additional creative loss-prevention and disguise ideas. I'm interested in ways to hide cash and prescription medications as well and, when I invest in a video surveillance system, how to hide or disguise the system's DVR while keeping it accessible. Any and all ideas you have on home and data security are greatly appreciated!

    3 replies
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    mr.knex13Taz-Hood

    Reply 3 months ago

    How much security do you have for your digital/internet footprint? Aka VPN, encrypted email, that kind of stuff. That might be just as important, especially in the future.

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    Alex in NZmr.knex13

    Reply 3 months ago

    Not sure if your question is for Taz-Hood or me, but I'm awake at the moment, so I'll jump in first.
    This 'Ible is about hiding a flash drive. Concealing or camouflaging information which is on-line is a whole different game. If you're interested in finding out more, I recommend reading the Security postings on theregister.co.uk. They are an IT news website which couples extremely good investigative journalism with National Enquirer style headlines. A few months of reading about the type of tracking which is done by _everybody_ on-line and the gaping security holes in _every_ OS/browser/whatever should have you starting to understand what to avoid for general data security.
    <joke>Regarding tin-foil hats: remember that to work, they have to made of tinfoil, and the stuff in your kitchen is aluminium foil. Tinfoil is manufactured by one company in Germany. Buy it in person. Wear a disguise. Pay cash. </joke>

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    Alex in NZTaz-Hood

    Reply 3 months ago

    Thank you for your detailed and very kind comments! I am actually planning another security-related project, but for technical reasons it's going to need to wait until autumn (couple of months).
    There's an old proverb "if you only have one backup then you don't have a backup," so I wouldn't keep all my data in one bucket of cables at home, but it is handy to have a regularly updated list nearby.
    Regarding hiding your medication, this 'Ible might be useful. I use it for hiding Tic-Tacs and for winding up people that this ancient flip-phone can do something that their iPhone 30 can't (i.e. give you a mint).
    For hiding cash, I would suggest this 'Ible, but that might just make it more attractive to a burglar :-)

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    Alex in NZJimG163

    Reply 3 months ago

    And which of the cables in the top photograph contains the data cache? ;-)
    You hide a tree in a forest :-D

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    JimG163Alex in NZ

    Reply 3 months ago

    Indeed. Very good point. I appreciate you sharing, was just joking that the process of sharing actually reduces the security by obscurity factor.