Rumors began to swirl this week about portable USB-powered fans provided to the 2,500-plus reporters and journalists in Singapore to cover the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Some said the devices could steal files and even eavesdrop on conversations when plugged into a computer.
On Wednesday, Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information issued a strong denial that these made-in-China USB fans contained spying devices or malware.
“The USB fans were contributed by Sentosa Development Corp [solo developer of the resort island of Sentosa where the summit took place]. … They were but one item in goodie bags containing a range of goods and information sheets from various partners,” noted the ministry, adding that these fans were simple devices with no storage or processing capabilities.
“The USB fans were … originally meant for tourists and had been assessed to be a handy and thoughtful gift for the media who would be working in Singapore’s tropical climate,” said the ministry.
A manager of the manufacturer in eastern China’s Zhejiang province that made the devices told local media that the products were simple to assemble and sold to overseas buyers at less than US$5 per unit, and that the firm didn’t have the capacity to add any advanced components for espionage in its “low tech” fans.
A number of journalists who had to brave the heat to cover the event in the Lion City applauded the USB fans as a thoughtful gift that made their work easier.
Conspiracy-theory speculation about cyber-espionage was first reported by France’s RFI and US online magazine The Federalist, which warned journalists heading for Singapore that “if you get free media swag that plugs into your phone or computer, like a USB fan, don’t use it.”
“China doesn’t have a seat at the negotiating table, but it will be listening in as best it can, using everything from free USB fans to advanced forensic devices that can circumvent some forms of disk encryption and extract information from mobile phones and computers,” the article warned.
The British Broadcasting Corporation also quoted a cyber-security expert as saying that plugging in a USB device has been a “classic way of circumventing security measures to get your software on their machine.”
Chinese papers have dismissed the allegation as pure conjecture.