How To Hack Your PC with a USB Stick?
Got a drawer full of USB sticks going to waste? Let us turn them into tools for fixing, securing and speeding up your PC
Create an emergency PC toolkit
These days, most of us have at least one USB stick (also known as a USB flash drive) hanging around that we rarely use, if ever. But if you’re using Windows 8/8.1 or 10, it takes only a little preparation to convert that humble USB stick into an instant insurance policy that may, one day, help you out of a tight spot.
Windows 8/8.1 and 10 include a tool for creating a bootable recovery USB drive (see below). Using this drive, you can launch a set of Windows tools – such as System Restore, Automatic Repair, Safe Mode and System Image Recovery – without having to start Windows. So if your PC won’t start normally one day, simply insert the USB stick and run the stored Windows tools from it.
To create the bootable recovery drive, plug your USB stick into your PC, type recovery into Start and then click ‘Create a recovery drive’ when it appears. Windows 10 lets you include backups of system files and Windows 8/8.1 lets you include a recovery partition; for the latter the USB stick will need at least 4GB of free space.
If you’re using Windows 7, you can make a similar bootable toolkit, but you’ll need to use a blank CD or DVD instead. Pop in a disc, click Start and type repair, then click ‘Create a system repair disk’.
Create a bootable malware scanner
Some malware, such as ransomware, can nobble your PC so badly that your installed security programs are rendered ineffective, or Windows itself becomes unstable.
One way to overcome this is to turn a USB stick into a bootable scanner that finds and removes infections without you having to start Windows. Security companies Kaspersky and AVG both provide free tools for creating a bootable scanner that you can use on PCs running Windows XP and above.
You can’t install both the Kaspersky and AVG tools on the same drive, but it’s worth creating two separate AV scanners. Malicious files that are missed by one scanner may be picked up by the other.
For Kaspersky Rescue Disk, insert a USB stick with at least 256MB of free space, and go here. Download both the ‘ISO image of Kaspersky Rescue Disk 10’ and the ‘utility for recording Kaspersky Rescue Disk 10 to USB devices’, then double-click the latter and follow the instructions to create the drive. For AVG, head here and click ‘Rescue CD (for USB stick)’. Unzip the file, insert a USB drive with at least 320MB of free space, then double-click Setup in your unzipped folder, select your USB drive and follow the remaining prompts.
Lock your PC
You can use a USB stick as a key to lock and unlock your PC. Download Predator Home Edition ( Windows XP and later; it costs $10, but you can use the free trial first). Install the program, then insert any USB stick and follow the on-screen instructions to set up your key.
When that’s done, your drive will work just like a real key. Plug it into the computer, and you can access it as normal. Pulling out the USB stick, however, instantly locks the PC, preventing other people accessing your personal files and information.
Give an old PC a performance boost
You may already know about ReadyBoost. This Windows tool, built into every version since Vista, lets you speed up your computer by plugging in a USB stick. It works by using the stick’s faster flash memory as virtual memory when it’s running short of RAM.
To use ReadyBoost, insert your USB, right-click the drive in Windows/File Explorer and select Properties. Click the ReadyBoost tab, then tick ‘Use this device’.
There are some restrictions, however. First the USB stick needs to have at least 256MB free, and it needs to meet Microsoft’s speed requirements (Windows will tell you if it doesn’t). Also, newer PCs with lots of free memories and a fast SSD are unlikely to benefit fromReadyBoost; older PCs stand to gain most. So it’s rather annoying that ReadyBoost was only introduced after XP.
If you’re prepared to spend $30 on a similar tool that works in XP, your best bet is eBoostr (www.eboostr.com). The free-trial version lets you use the tool without restrictions for two hours between computer restarts.
Run Linux from a USB
Many popular Linux distributions (‘distros’) now let you run the OS from a USB stick, without the hassle of having to replace Windows or set up a dual-boot installation. You can use the USB to install programs, create and save files, and more.
We recommend choosing a lightweight distro such as Lubuntu, as this will be fast and responsive, even when running from USB. Go here and click the 32bit or 64bit standard image disc, depending on your system type. You’ll need a free tool called Pendrivelinux Universal USB Installer (www.pendrivelinux.com), which loads the OS onto a bootable USB stick. You should use a fairly large stick – between 2GB and 16GB – if you want enough space for saved files and programs.
With both files downloaded and the stick inserted, double-click the Universal USB Installer program to launch it and follow the on-screen steps, selecting your Lubuntu distro and your USB, then using the slider to set how much of the remaining space you’d like to use as a ‘persistent’ area for storage. Whenever you want to bypass Windows and use Linux instead, simply plug in your Linux USB and start your PC.
Partition your hard drive
Mucking about with drive partitions while Windows is running can often spell disaster, and Windows’ own partitioning tools aren’t exactly exhaustive. Parted
Magic (https://partedmagic.com) is a much better alternative that lets you clone, resize and move partitions. The tool costs around $10 (good value, in our opinion) and is delivered as an ISO file. Instead of burning the ISO to a CD or DVD, however, you should use the Pendrivelinux Universal USB Installer (see the previous tip) to transfer Parted Magic to a bootable USB stick.
MAKE YOUR PC SUPPORT BOOTABLE USB
Many of our hacks involve using a USB stick as a ‘bootable’ drive. This means you run software from it when you boot your PC, letting you bypass Windows and run another OS (such as Linux), or sidestep malware that’s got into your system.
But not all computers are configured to boot from USB. If you’re having problems booting to software from a USB stick, restart your PC and tap the key (or key combination) required to access the BIOS (usually F2 or Del; check your PC’s instructions).
Navigate to ‘boot order’ or ‘boot sequence’ (this may be in the ‘advanced’ menu). You should see a list of drive types. Use the Page Up and Page Down keys to reorder the list so that the removable or USB type is at the top. Save and exit the BIOS, then restart your PC with the USB stick plugged in.
Also, read Safety Tips From getting Hacked.