German Data Specialists Finds Many Faulty USB Thumb Drives

A black USB drive sits on a black laptop.

Dubious storage solutions are not new, with reports of cheap components in hard drives and inaccurate storage capacities on memory cards and thumb drives. Unfortunately, that trend is increasing, according to German data recovery specialists CBL.

CBL, a German data recovery service, has found that the quality of microSD and USB sticks is declining, as reported by Tom’s Hardware. No-name devices, in particular, are becoming less reliable with significant quality issues. The reduction in quality raises serious concerns for those who use microSD cards and USB sticks for storage.

The CBL report (originally in German, so quotes have been machine translated) mentions that USB sticks with the NAND chip manufacturer logo removed are increasingly sent to its data recovery lab. This trend indicates that “chips that fail quality control from manufacturers such as Hynix, SanD78isk, or Samsung are resold and brought onto the market with reduced memory capacity specifications,” explains CBL.

“When we opened defective USB sticks last year, we found an alarming number of inferior memory chips with reduced capacity and the manufacturer’s logo removed from the chip. Clearly discarded and unrecognizable microSD cards are also soldered onto a USB stick and managed with the external one on the USB stick board instead of the microSD’s internal controller,” explains Conrad Heinicke, Managing Director of CBL Datenrettung GmbH. “These USB sticks of dubious quality were mostly promotional gifts, but there were also branded products among them. You shouldn’t rely too much on the reliability of flash memory. This is also in view of the fact that technological developments are making NAND chips in flash storage media increasingly vulnerable.”

CBL shared three photos of USB sticks it received. In one image, it is possible to make out the SanDisk name, though it has been covered with text to obscure it. The two other examples have no labels whatsoever. One drive even had a microSD card soldered to a PCB, which is becoming a common way to reduce the production cost of USB sticks.

It seems that companies reselling these problem chips are reducing the storage capacity to salvage them. Beyond capacity issues, there are also longevity concerns. CBL notes a decrease in the maximum possible write-read cycles, meaning the USB stick will fail much earlier than higher-quality options, leaving users with lost data.

“Even with high-quality memory chips, the effort that manufacturers have to put into error correction mechanisms in the controller is enormous. It is not surprising that data loss occurs with USB sticks containing decommissioned chips. Flash memory is practical, but you should be aware that it can lose data if stored for a long time, for example,” says Heinicke. “These unknown chips with erased manufacturer logos don’t make data recovery any easier for us. Fortunately, by using AI, we have managed to improve our tools and reduce the effort required to develop software to save flash memory algorithms.”

So, what’s the takeaway here? First and foremost, users should rely on something other than microSD cards and USB sticks for long-term storage. These devices are intended to transfer data and temporarily hold files, but users should not use them to back up work or save work for long periods. This is especially true with drives that were “promotional gifts,” as they are typically relatively low-quality. In terms of memory cards, be sure to invest in a well-known brand such as Lexar, SanDisk, and others, instead of the cheapest option you can find on Amazon.

Instead, invest in a quality portable hard drive if you need portable yet reliable storage. And for truly long-term storage, consider desktop drives or cloud services for robust backup options. And remember, the three-two-one rule is the best option for keeping files safe.

For those who frequently use USB sticks, CBL recommends using multiple drives in rotation and should be ready to retire older ones, as flash memory chips only offer a certain number of deletion cycles. CBL also explains that using the smallest USB stick available is not the best move because “the force when plugging them in often acts directly on the chips and because they have poorer heat dissipation than larger, more robust models,” CBL explains. Finally, always be sure to use the “safely remove” or “eject” option when removing a drive, and wait for the device to provide the “okay” before disconnecting.

If a card or flash drive does fail, there are options to recover the data. It’s best to avoid recovery at all costs, though, as it isn’t guaranteed, and there are risks associated with recovery.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.