Taking sweeties from strangers - update

Now hold on just one cotton-picking....As well as the cornets, the nice ice babe with the Intel van was also doling out promotional USB keys.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Now hold on just one cotton-picking....

As well as the cornets, the nice ice babe with the Intel van was also doling out promotional USB keys. Nothing unusual there - this is fairly standard practice for press packs and the like these days. Indeed, this one has a 166K PDF on it extolling Intel's extreme cleverness - on a 10MB partition, on a 1GB drive. Bit silly, but there we go.

So yours truly looked at the document, made a copy, and thought "Don't like that partition, I'll just have it out". No way, said my computer. So I fired up some hairy-arsed Linux software, the sort that could de-partition India and Pakistan from one rather spiky command line. "Go away", it said. "That's not kosher."

Blimey. What's going on?

Well, that's a very good question. After some dismal faffery with various tools, all of which just underlined the utter anonymity of the drive in front of me - and the ferociousness with which it held onto that partition and that darn document, I took another tack. I searched for promotional USB drive companies.

And of course, this is just another service they offer, alongside silk-screening your company logo on the case and custom plastic design. Here's an example, although there's no reason to think this happens to be the company behind Intel's key. And a quote from that page: "Non-Erasable Content: Pre-load specific content such as marketing materials and application software that you never want removed by end users.". Well, yes, I can see how that can be done - and there are lots of cheap ways to make it happen, now I think about it. There's probably a utility somewhere to undo it -- I know that U3, who do this sort of thing for retail devices, have one. And I also know it doesn't work on my key. Ahem.

But there's worse. What else can you give the promotion-seeking company, CustomUSB?

"Private Data Area: A hidden data area not visible to the user can securely store information and/or collect information for a variety of uses."

Pardon? You mean this key, given to me by a nice lady along with an ice cream, could be harbouring invisible software and invisible data storage, and I have no way of telling?

Further investigation? I think so. Meanwhile, you may care to think up how many ways this particular option could be abused. I can think of lots. Have I got reason to distrust Intel? Of course not. Did I have reason to distrust HP, before it employed private detectives and deception to monitor my colleagues in San Francisco? Of course not.

But how paranoid should we be?

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