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Oz rail company sold USB keys from lost property in auction

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Someone in RailCorp will be nursing a bruised ego after selling a pile of USB keys lost on trains in the authority’s regular lost property auction.

It may have never raised an eyebrow, except that the keys were bought by the keen-eyed Paul Ducklin of Sophos. What Ducklin thought of as a good source of research into user habits has consequently turned into a shouting match over privacy.

Certainly Ducklin’s research into the keys he picked up at the auction reveals a nation of overconfident users. Extracting the metadata from the keys – he emphasised, both in this blog post and on the telephone to The Register that nobody at Sophos viewed any private data – he discovered that none of the keys were encrypted (or had any kind of access control enabled), and two-thirds were infected with malware.

The pervasive problem of USB data leakage also popped up, with CAD files, meeting minutes, tax deductions and the like turning up on the keys.

On its own, that would have made a story, but the second story – the bruiser for RailCorp – was that the rail authority made no attempt to wipe the keys before selling them. This is at odds with the policies that dictate that more sensitive devices like PCs and mobile phones are wiped before sale.

According to SC Magazine, this brought a slap from the NSW privacy regulator, which stated that RailCorp “should be cleaning these USBs” before sale.

The Register was also moved to wonder whether someone’s lost USB stick might not be still protected by laws protecting private data against unauthorised access.

While not a lawyer, the point hadn’t escaped Ducklin. He emphasised that in analysing the keys, Sophos didn’t open any private user files – rather, it created a script to scrape out information like filenames, and made its inferences from the filenames.

Also, under the legislation covering railway lost property, unclaimed objects eventually become the property of RailCorp. Since it, as the owner of the devices, on-sold them to Sophos, this should cover the “authorisation” question: by the time it analysed the USBs, Sophos was the owner. ®

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