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USB Antivirus: Portable Protection

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January 19,2005

Korean-based Iocell has announced VaccineDrive, a USB drive that includes the Hauri ViRobot antivirus scanner. Iocell uses C2, their own developed operating system. They claim to the be the "World's First Portable Anti-Virus Drive. But the C2 platform wasn't even released until Sep '05, and the VaccineDrive specifically was not released until January 13, 2005. Iocell claims that C2 is 'open platform', but that can be widely interpreted and they offer little insight into what that interpretation might be.

Conversely, U3 formed a year ago, in January '05. The U3 platform is proprietary. Partners include Kingston, Verbatim, and Memorex. Rumor has it CheckPoint has also expressed interest. Both McAfee and Trend Micro have announced U3-compatible security software. (McAfee announced their intentions to support the platform very early on, in January '05 - about 9 months before the U3 devices were actually released). Skype and Mozilla are two other well-known companies that offer apps for the U3 platform.

When the first U3 drives were released in Sept '05, they were bundled with 'U3 Anti-Virus' - "Based on McAfee VirusScan technology, U3 Anti-Virus detects and removes viruses, worms, and Trojans, automatically scanning the USB smart drive and the memory of the computer to which it connects, to ensure the U3 drive is protected against security threats which may result in the loss or damage of documents and data." Source

Which is kind of interesting, because SanDisk and M-Systems were the two companies that formed U3. But if you search SanDisk and look at their newly released Cruzer Titanium USB drive, it comes with AVAST - and not McAfee. However, McAfee's scanner is included on the Verbatim Store 'n' Go U3 Smart Drive.

Since, for all intents and purposes, SanDisk *is* U3 and Verbatim just a partner, this gives me some pause. Was it price? features? compatibility? that kept McAfee off of SanDisk's (and thus U3's own) Titanium drive?

And searching Trend's site for USB products brings up only press releases stating their intention to provide product for U3, but no actual product.

Having antivirus software run from a USB drive is a good, good thing, particularly since the large size of antivirus definitions have made running a scan from a floppy a thing of the past. Moreover, since not all antivirus products will run in Safe Mode and it's much easier to clean a system in Safe Mode, this poses a bit of a conundrum. Plus, today's malicious software often attacks the antivirus first, meaning that just when you need a scan the most, the antivirus installed on your PC just might be dead. One fabulous workaround is to create an antivirus CD using the venerable F-Prot Antivirus for DOS. Frisk Software, makers of F-Prot, are one of the most respected antivirus vendors in the industry. The only downside is that in order to update it, you have to burn a new CD each time.

The obvious advantage of a USB-based antivirus is that you can easily update it simply by plugging it into any Internet-connected PC. A second huge plus is that the USB drive also functions as a storage device and a U3 USB drive can support a number of other useful applications as well. For those worried about durability, SanDisk's Cruzer Titanium USB drive is protected by LiquidMetal's titanium casing, allowing it to withstand up to 2000 pounds of pressure.

It remains to be seen how well the antivirus industry embraces USB technologies, whether U3 or C2 will become dominant (my bet is on U3), or whether savvy consumers will be interested in USB drives that are more than just storage devices. But the prices are compelling for portable storage with portable virus scanning as an added perk. Just remember that while portable antivirus is a great idea for stubborn infectors, it's no substitute for installed antivirus software running on your PC.

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