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Former student zapped $58,000 worth of PC equipment using a 'USB Killer' device

A 27-year-old former student of The College of St. Rose in Albany, New York, has pleaded guilty to intentionally destroying dozens of the school's computers, monitors, and related equipment worth more than $58,000 by using a "USB Killer" gadget.

According to the US Department of Justice, Vishwanath Akuthota, who resides in the US on a student visa, recorded himself on an iPhone as he proceeded to plug a USB Killer device into 66 computers and other PC gear. Court documents uploaded to Scribd by ZDNet also reveal that he made some followup comments after plugging in the USB stick, saying "It's dead" in one instance, and in another, "It's gone. Boom."

The USB Killer device looks innocuous like any other USB flash drive. However, it's far from a typical external storage drive. When plugged into a USB port, it draws power from the USB power lines until it reaches around 240V, at which point it discharges the stored voltage into the USB data lines. It does this repeatedly and rapidly—multiple times per second until the system is fried, which typically happens almost instantly.

These kinds of devices are readily attainable for less than $100. The company that makes the USB Killer says it's intended to test USB ports against power surge attacks.

"Thanks to our clients, the USB Killer has been legally tested on hundreds of different devices, revealing which manufacturers have taken steps to protect their customers. The goal of legal testing is to raise awareness, forcing manufacturers to protect their customers," the company says.

In that regard, there actually is a legitimate use, and the maker of the USB Killer counts several prominent companies among its clients, including Cisco, Microsoft, Panasonic, Samsung, and others. However, it obviously can be used for harm as well. Almost every device with a USB port is vulnerable, too, including game consoles—it's able to overload 95 percent of consumer devices with a USB port, the company claims.

Akuthota faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. He will be sentenced on August 12, 2019.