Distribute grenade launchers: capable of maiming people

Some of the widely distributed USB flash drives can turn out to be… mini-bombs
(photo: CC0 Public Domain)

Criminals found an insidious use of the popular ones USB flash drive memories used massively for transferring files and for other purposes. They distribute flash bombs that are capable of they cripple the people around.

Journalists from Ecuador received flash drives with a minibomb inside them, Arstechnica reported in a post about the new threat. When connected to a computer, the flash drives explode, hitting everyone nearby with shrapnel.

It is not clear how many such devices were mailed and how many reached the recipients, nor who the senders of the letters with the exploding USB sticks were. In theory, such a pocket bomb can be assembled easily, “on the knee”.

Journalists in the crosshairs

Dangerous flash packs filled with real explosives have been delivered to at least five Ecuadorian journalists known for their anti-corruption and exposé articles. One of them, Lenin Artieda of the TV channel Ecuavisa in Guayaquil, has already encountered the mini-bomb. He inserted a flash drive into his computer, which immediately exploded, but luckily Artiena was not seriously injured.

As a result of the explosion, the journalist received only minor injuries on his hands and face, but according to the portal Tom’s Hardware, the device did not explode completely – part of the explosive remained unactivated. In other words, the flash drive should have caused significantly more damage, possibly not only to the recipient of the letter, but also to those around him at the time it was connected to the computer.

According to Xavier Chango, a spokesman for the Ecuadorian police, a small explosive charge was installed in the flash drive, the detonator of which is activated when a voltage of 5V is applied – a standard voltage for the USB port of any computer. The type of explosive has not yet been determined, but police are inclined to believe it is hexogen.

Chango says the hexogen was packed in a small capsule about 1cm in size. The officer claims that for some unknown reason only half the charge actually went off, and this probably saved the injured journalist from more serious harm.

The attacks against journalists in Ecuador took place in March 2023. Dangerous flashcards were sent not only to Artieda, but also to two other journalists in Guayaquil and several of their colleagues in the capital of Quito.

One of the recipients is Alvaro Rosero, who works at radio station EXA FM – he received an envelope with a device on March 15. The journalist handed it to the producer, who even connected it to a computer, but no explosion occurred. The Ecuadorian police believe that the manufacturer used a special adapter to connect the flash, due to which it received less than 5 V and as a result the detonator did not work.

Another reporter tried to access the unknown contents of the device. According to local publication Fundamedios, Milton Perez of the Teleamazonas office in Quito was about to plug in the flash drive sent to him, but for some reason he was unable to insert it into the computer port.

Ecuadorian police have managed to capture the fourth device sent to Carlos Vera in Guayaquil. She seized a fifth flash drive from journalist Mauricio Ayora of TC Television, which was detonated under the control of sappers.

An attack on freedom of speech

Interior Minister Zapata confirms that the same type of USB device was used in all five cases. According to him, the incidents sent an “absolutely clear signal to shut up the mouths of journalists”. Fundamedios claims each of the flash drives was accompanied by a message – Artieda received a threatening letter and an envelope sent to TC Television’s office contained a note defaming an unidentified political group.

In a letter to Milton Perez, the sender claims the flash drive contains some information that will help expose Correísmo, an Ecuadorian political movement named after former president Rafael Correa, who ruled the country from 2007 to 2017. The letter’s author says will soon send the second part of the archive with compromising information on Correísmo.

The Ecuadorian government responded by stating that “any attempt to intimidate journalists and freedom of expression is an abhorrent act that must be punished with the full severity of justice.”

A reminder to be cautious

At the time of publication of the material, it has not been established who is behind these letters and how many more such envelopes are waiting for their addressees. What happened in Ecuador is another reminder that you should never follow dubious web links, open suspicious files, and even more so activate devices sent by an unknown person in an envelope with threats inside.

Even if such a flash drive does not explode, it can physically destroy the computer by applying a huge voltage to its boards – such devices exist and are freely available, and you can assemble them yourself using instructions from the Internet. The consequences of their use can be very unpleasant.

In addition, the devices may contain ransomware-type malware, which can lead to unexpected data loss and the cost of possibly unlocking the files.

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