Free USB charging stations have become commonplace in many public places, from airports to hospital waiting rooms. While this appears to be a thoughtful accommodation, a quick charge from a USB port in a public setting could actually put your data at risk of being stolen.
Despite its association with charging, USB technology was originally designed to transmit data. As a result, hackers can take advantage of these public charging stations to install malware on your smartphone or tablet via a compromised USB cable. This technique, known as “juice jacking,” enables hackers to read and export your data, including passwords. They can even use this method to lock your device, rendering it unusable.
𝗠𝗮𝗹𝘄𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝗔𝘁𝘁𝗮𝗰𝗸𝘀 𝗼𝗻 𝗣𝘂𝗯𝗹𝗶𝗰 𝗖𝗵𝗮𝗿𝗴𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗦𝘁𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝘀
The Federal Trade Commission and others have issued warnings about the dangers of public charging stations that use USB ports. Hackers have been using these to steal data from devices, plant malware, and other malicious activities.
Criminals load malware onto a public USB charging station, such as one at an airport, restaurant, or other public location. When an unsuspecting user connects their device to that USB charging port, the malware is released, and the hacker is free to do whatever they want.
When you plug your phone into one of these “juice jacking” USB ports, a hacker can do the following:
- Read all of the information on your device.
- Secure your device
- Malware infects your device
- Take sensitive data from your phone
- Plant malware that allows the SIM card in your phone to be cloned.
𝗛𝗼𝘄 𝘁𝗼 𝗔𝘃𝗼𝗶𝗱 𝗕𝗲𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗮 𝗝𝘂𝗶𝗰𝗲 𝗝𝗮𝗰𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗩𝗶𝗰𝘁𝗶𝗺
Because hackers infect the ports of legitimate public USB charging stations, determining which are safe and which are not can be difficult.
Most people will not let their phone die if they can avoid it, so they may believe that taking the risk to get a charge is worth it if they don’t have another easy way to get one.
There are some precautions you can take to avoid being exposed to an infected USB port.
Instead of USB, use power outlets to charge.
An electrical outlet will not transfer data as quickly as a USB connection will. Bring the part of your charging cable that includes an electrical plug, and if traveling abroad, get a power adapter to use the various types of electrical outlets.
Many charging stations in airports and other public places will have both a USB port and an electrical outlet for charging.
Bring Portable Power Banks with you.
These allow you to charge your phone without the need for an external source. This is very useful to have with you when traveling, especially if you won’t be in a location where you can easily charge your phone or tablet.
Carrying your own small power source capable of charging one or two full battery charges can help you avoid low-battery anxiety as well as potentially infected USB charging ports.
Purchase a Charge-Only Cord
There are USB charging cords available that are “charge only,” which means that they will only allow power through but will not enable a data connection like other USB cords.
Carrying this around gives you a backup in case you need to charge something and the only option is a USB port. It will make it easier for you to do it safely.