Why You Shouldn’t Be Using USB Sticks

, , ,

Let’s face it, USB sticks really are convenient…

they’re small and light, and these days they have some pretty spacious amounts of storage on them. We’ve seen the numbers of students and staff using USB sticks for college work jump ever higher in recent years. We use them too, just not for important stuff. Read on to find out why.

There’s a vast difference between the three main options you have when it comes to saving files at college;


  • Your Home FolderEverybody is given 5Gb of on-site storage.
    • This is physically located at the college
    • It is also backed up at the college, every night.
    • Our storage platforms are enterprise-level SAN hardware.
    • It has no single point of failure [SPOF] and is inherently safe, designed for maximum uptime.

  • Google Drive – All college Staff and Students have 10tb of additional storage over at drive.google.com.
    • 10tb is a gigantic amount of space – 2,000x the size of your Home Folder.
    • Google Drive is accessed through a web browser, online.
    • It’s therefore easy to upload to and download from at home, or on the move via your mobile device.
    • Google Drive is constantly backed up, and also runs on enterprise-level storage systems.
    • It has no single point of failure [SPOF] and is inherently safe.


  • Your Own Storage – This is typically a USB stick, or an SD card.
    • You might have a small 2GB USB stick, or a bulky 2TB external Hard Disk that you bring in to college.
    • Either way, we’re not responsible for backing up it’s contents.
    • It is a Single Point of Failure – if it stops working [and one day, it just will], there’s not much we can do to help.

Many users seem unaware that using a USB stick puts their work at risk – in fact, we’ve found that many users rely entirely on USB sticks, and don’t use the other two options provided by the college! This is a little bit like buying a brand new car, removing the seatbelts, opting to wear a bicycle helmet instead and hoping for the best.

What data has IT support recovered from student USB sticks and SD cards in two years?

314 USB sticks brought in for recovery jobs [2512GB of data]

110 SD cards brought in for recovery jobs [1760GB of data]

2 external hard disk drives brought in for recovery jobs [3500GB of data]

1 student laptop hard disk drive brought in for recovery [120GB of data]

41 USB sticks and SD cards brought in for recovery jobs that were immediately unrecoverable [hardware too broken]

7892GB of data in total that has been processed [slowly] and recovered

– of this, only 38GB was actually needed / wanted / taken away by student after completion of recovery

– roughly 8TB of space taken up on our network, for contrast, this is larger than all first and second year student Home Folders combined

– roughly 69 man-hours spent working on recovery tasks [which could have been spent somewhere else]

Judging by current prices found on a couple of different private data recovery businesses’ websites, shockingly, this would have cost well in excess of £40,000 if pursued collectively. [ source source ]

So what happens when your USB stick, or SD card breaks?


  • It’s very likely that you won’t have been expecting it to break, since consumer-level USB sticks rarely give you warning that they’re about to experience a failure.
  • Important to note too, that at no point can we actually guarantee the successful recovery of files, we can only try.
  • This is going to take some time, so you won’t have access to the work that you’d saved onto it, what are you going to do if it’s hand-in day?
  • Once you’ve found the IT helpdesk, we’ll need you to fill out a form. We need all the details you can give us, as we’re about to go fishing for a needle in a haystack.
  • We’ll then begin our recovery process, using a few different tools.
  • If the USB stick has suffered a very obvious physical breakage, then you’re already out of luck.
  • If it’s in slightly better shape, we can run foremost, a tool written to recover data from broken filesystems and files.
  • Foremost takes a long time to complete. A very long time. It’s quite possible that it could take all day.
  • If Foremost does manage to find some files, they’ll all have very different names; so each recovered file has to be manually checked to see if it’s the file you’re after.
  • And if we’re lucky enough to find your file, we then have to move it over to your Home Folder, as your USB Stick is still broken.
  • We’ll also have to securely erase the other contents of the recovery task from our systems – because by now, we’re holding somebody’s private data on our network.

This whole process can take between an hour or a few days, depending on the size of the USB stick, external hard drive or SD card you’ve given us. It’s compute intensive, so a dedicated machine has to sit and think really hard for a long time to recover the files [this costs us in electricity]. It’s also draining on our team – we love to help, and we’ve seen tears of joy before when important work has been rescued at the last possible minute, or important photographs have been brought back to life.

…but it’s the year 2019 and everything you just read above is entirely avoidable.

How is it avoidable, are there any other reasons I shouldn’t use USB sticks for important stuff, are there really benefits in using Home / Google Drive?


  1. As a student or member of staff, by making use of the tested and verified systems you are provided with, you can ensure that your work is at it’s safest; By saving work into your Home Folder [or any subfolder of Home – that includes Desktop] you are making sure that it’s backed up daily, on a system that has no single point of failure.
  2. By using Google Drive / Docs you’re not only making files that are backed up daily, they’re backed up constantly – every change is recorded and you can ‘step back’ to a previous version with ease.
  3. By Using Home / Google Drive for your college files, you’re making sure that you and you alone have access to these files. It is entirely possible for somebody to steal your USB stick and copy, delete, or even worse – subtly edit your course work. You’d only know if you checked.
  4. As well as being more private, Google Drive / Docs gives you the ability to quickly and easily share a file, or folder of files, with a whole class group, a single student or member of staff.
  5. It’s hundreds of times easier for us to recover lost work if you’re saving it in the right place to begin with. This saves us time and saves you from potentially having a really bad day.
  6. If you open up a large Photoshop document from a USB key or SD card, you’re already incurring a performance hit – data moves between the computer and USB device at a much slower and inconsistent rate than it will from your Home Folder; especially so if you move around using many different types of computers.
  7. Likewise, USB can be pretty bad at transferring [opening, editing and saving are still ‘transferring’] large numbers of small files, like office documents or folders full of JPG images.

Sometimes I’m required to use an SD card to work with a camera, and what if I want to keep a backup of my stuff on a USB key?

These are very good points – for most DSLR cameras and some HD Video cameras, you have to use an SD or CF card. It’s worth using the following rule though; make sure it’s only on that SD card for as long as it needs to be – the sooner you can move that data onto our network / Google drive – the sooner it will be safe. As for keeping a copy of stuff on a USB key, we’re not against that – having an extra copy is always a great idea. It’s important to remember not to use it as your working copy; keep your current day-to-day copy somewhere much safer, like Home Folder or Google Drive.

I study video / music editing and need to be able to move very large files around, there’s not enough space in Home and Google Drive isn’t ideal for this, what would you suggest?

This is the one case in which an external storage drive is the best way to move your data, but we have a couple of pointers here too;

So there you have it; USB storage is very convenient in the short-term – it’s a quick and easy way to move files from A to B. That said, we hope you understand why we firmly believe you should never use it to store your work long-term, and instead use the other options that are available to you as a student or staff member at Barton Peveril.

4 replies
  1. Charlie KELLY
    Charlie KELLY says:

    Great article guys. My only qualm is with the last bit, the advice on video/music editing.

    Doesn’t FAT32 only support up to 4GB file sizes? This would be useless – assuming that most video files or raw footage can be well in excess of 4GB!

  2. Ben Harker
    Ben Harker says:

    Thanks for the reply Charlie! we suggest fat32 from the outset as quite often users are simply more concerned about using their footage across platforms; we’ll look into a better strategy and edit the article to reflect this.

    in the past we’ve considered using NTFS-3G-like FUSE based drivers so that NTFS drives can be used – but have experienced data loss in the past, so we’re not 100% happy about unleashing that into the wild. That’d just give us more data to try and recover!

    we’ll get back to you, cheers for reading!

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply