Object of Interest: The Flash Drive
When Daniel Ellsberg decided to copy the Pentagon Papers, in 1969, he secretly reproduced them, page by page, with a photocopier. The process of duplication was slow; every complete copy of the material spanned seven thousand pages. When Edward Snowden decided to leak details of surveillance programs conducted by the National Security Agency, he was able to simply slip hundreds of documents into his pocket; the government believes that Snowden secreted them away on a small device no bigger than a pinkie finger: a flash drive.
The flash drive’s compact size, ever-increasing storage capacity, and ability to interface with any computer that has a universal-serial-bus port—which is, essentially, every computer—makes it an ideal device for covertly copying data or uploading malicious software onto computer systems. They are, consequently, an ongoing security concern. The devices are reportedly banned from the N.S.A.’s facilities; a former N.S.A. official told the Los Angeles Times that “special permission” is required to use them. Even then, the official said, “people always look at you funny.” In the magazine, Seymour Hersh reported that an incident involving a USB drive resulted in some N.S.A. unit commanders ordering “all ports on the computers on their bases to be sealed with liquid cement.”
USB flash drives are perhaps the purest form of two distinct pieces of technology: flash memory and the universal serial bus. Flash memory was invented at Toshiba in the nineteen-eighties. According to Toshiba’s timeline, the NAND variant of flash memory, which is the kind now used for storage in myriad devices, like smartphones and flash drives, was invented in 1987. The technology, which stores data in memory cells, remained incredibly expensive for well over a decade, costing hundreds of dollars per megabyte in the early to mid-nineteen-nineties. The universal serial bus was developed in the mid-nineties by a coalition of technology companies to simplify connecting devices to computers through a single, standardized port. By the end of the decade, flash memory had become inexpensive enough to begin to make its way into consumer devices, while USB succeeded in becoming a truly universal computer interface.
The first patent for a “USB-based PC flash disk” was filed in April, 1999, by the Israeli company M-Systems (which no longer exists—it was acquired by SanDisk in 2006). Later that same year, I.B.M. filed an invention disclosure by one of its employees, Shimon Shmueli, who continues to claim that he invented the USB flash drive. Trek 2000 International, a Singaporean company, was the first to actually sell a USB flash drive, which it called the ThumbDrive, in early 2000. (It won the trademark for ThumbDrive, which has come to be a generic term for the devices, only a few years ago.) Later that year, I.B.M. was the first to sell the devices in the U.S. The drive, produced by M-Systems, was called the DiskOnKey. The first model held just eight megabytes. The timing was nonetheless fortuitous: 1.44-megabyte floppy disks had long been unable to cope with expanding file sizes, and even the most popular souped-up replacement, the Zip drive, failed to truly succeed it. Optical media, despite storing large amounts of data, remained relatively inconvenient; recording data was time consuming, re-recording it even more so.
Improved manufacturing technologies have simultaneously increased flash drives’ capacity while decreasing their cost. The most popular flash drive on Amazon stores thirty-two gigabytes and costs just twenty-five dollars, while a flash drive recently announced by Kingston can hold one terabyte of data—enough for thousands of hours of audio, or well over a hundred million pages of documents—and transfer that data at speeds of a hundred and sixty to two hundred and forty megabytes per second. Few things come to mind that store more information in less space—a black hole, for instance.
More critically, as convenience drives people to share more and more information across networks, rather than through meatspace—why back up data on a spare hard drive when you can store it in the cloud for cents on the gigabyte, or burn a movie to a disc for a friend when you can share it via Dropbox?—flash drives are a convenient means of transporting large quantities of information off the grid. (Getting that data onto the flash drive in the first place may be another matter, though.) Carrying a flash drive in your pocket on the subway does not produce network traffic or metadata that can later be analyzed.
Flash drives have even been used to create a new form of a dead drop in cities around the country: the drives are embedded into walls or other public spaces, and users simply plug their device into the exposed USB port to download or upload data. Though these dead drops are largely a kind of performance art, the intent is to allow people to anonymously share data without passing it over a network—a proposition that is only growing more rarefied.
It seems certain that there will be more Daniel Ellsbergs and Edward Snowdens, and almost as certain that flash drives will be a tool they use to secretly copy and abscond with the information they need—at least until something that is even more discreet, secure, and convenient arrives.