UK design firm shows off 'Shadowire' - is this the answer to USB security woes?

Simpler than Ethernet, more secure than sticking files on a USB stick

Famous UK house of invention Cambridge Consultants has this week showcased a clever new technology that can be used to transfer encrypted files between computers without the drawbacks of insecure USB drives.

Called Shadowire, the demonstration form is a deceptively simple-looking wire with a USB connector on each end and a bulge in the middle housing a microprocessor with a hardwired encryption engine and flash memory.

Although any computer into which Shadowire is plugged will see it as a conventional USB drive, it works in a completely different way. Files transferred to the Shadowire are automatically encrypted with a symmetric session key after which they are 'pulled' into the receiving computer when the key is erased.

In effect, Cambridge Consultants has invented a form of point-to-point transfer system which despite not being as multi-functional as a standard USB drive has several advantages for secure environments.

The first is that the drive can't inadvertently transfer malware from computer to computer, a major issue when using standard flash drives. The other is that the files are encrypted and then decrypted for the duration of the transfer after which they and the key used to encrypt them become completely inaccessible. Because no data is left accessible on the Shadowire none can be lost.

There are other ways of achieving the same aim on a USB drive but they involve setting and managing passwords, something this design avoids. Cambridge Consultants believes that the way the design maintains networks isolation will be another selling point.

"Using a standard USB drive to transfer files is convenient, yet the risk it poses to an organisation is significant. Accidental data loss can incur commercial and, increasingly, legal costs. Malware infection is also a real threat," said Cambridge Consultants' head of networked systems, Jez Stark.

"It was through our day-to-day work that one of our clever guys had the idea and went on to create the technology himself. Since the idea was triggered from an everyday challenge, user experience was front and centre of the design concept."

The company had shown off the design this week at the Smartphone & Mobile Expo in Japan and is looking to find partners that might incorporate it into their own systems, he said.

"At this stage Shadowire is a concept designed and funded by Cambridge Consultants to demonstrate how the technology could work. We are now looking for potential clients interested in working with us to further develop the idea," said Stark.

The company also believes that Shadowire would be cheaper than ultra-secure USB sticks at around $15 to make.

Cambridge Consultants is probably the UK's longest-surviving technology and design consultancy, having first prospered in the 'white heat of technology' boom on the Wilsonian 1960s. Since then it has waxed and waned with every tech expansion, including the current one based on early-stage and startups.

The firm seems to have plenty of ideas in its pipeline. Last month it publicized the DropTag, an alternative to expensive in-car telematics boxes.

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