Public Phone Charging Stations.
So, you are busy dragging your suitcase through the busy airport to make sure you catch the next flight when you notice a very important email come through. You glance down to check it and boom! Your phone battery is at 5 percent. Panic sets in, but you feel relieved when you see the public charging station.
Our phones have become very important sources for storing all information including personal pictures, phone contacts, emails, mobile wallets, and even bank account details. It is for this reason that people have become a little deranged when they see the distressful low battery warning.
To save the situation, more and more public places are now offering multiple cell phone charging stations to their visitors to help bring their battery back to life. Public phone charging stations can be found at train stations, shopping centers, and airports.
But wait—before you run to plug-in your phone to that wall outlet, understand that these public charging stations may not be the best ways to get your phone charged. Experts warn that public charging stations may not be as safe as you may think as there are dangers lurking behind those USB ports, waiting to pry on you. In this article, we discuss the safety of public charging stations and whether or not you should use them to charge your phone.
Are public USB charging stations safe?
The answer to this question is, no. While it’s true that public USB charging stations are convenient, it’s also true that they pose an excellent opportunity for hackers to corrupt your phone with malware. The USB ports found on phones act as a one-stop shop for charging your device and also getting data on or off when you need to.
Unfortunately, USB is also the worst thing on your phone from a security point of view. Using public USB ports may lead to what we call “juice jacking,” which is when hackers utilize the connection to transfer dangerous malware onto your phone and steal your personal data.
Why you should never use airport USB charging stations.
As discussed above, the handy USB charging stations at the airport come at a high cost that you may not see. Hackers can modify the USB connections to introduce malware onto your phone or even secretly download data.
Using public cell phone charging stations kiosk is like using public Wi-Fi networks where everyone has access. Anyone with the right tools and skills can access your device and steal important personal information including files and stored passwords. In short, public charging stations put your security and privacy at serious risk.
It’s therefore, much safer to always carry your own charger or bring a long a portable power bank that can help you recharge your device when the battery goes down.
Can Chargers steal information?
Yes, chargers can steal information. According to this warning issued by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, there is a USB Charger Scam often called “juice jacking,” where cybercriminals install malware onto USB charging stations or cables in a bid to infect the devices of unsuspecting users. This malware may lock the phone or transfer passwords and other information directly to the scammer.
How Big of a Risk are Public Charging Stations?
Public charging stations present two risks to the user. The first risk emanates from the charging socket, but if it’s an ordinary power socket and you happen to use your own adapter plug and cable, then you have no reason to worry. There is no way a hacker can dodge the physical attributes of the hardware to install malware or steal data from your phone.
The second risk comes from the cable, so if you use someone else’s cable then there is a possibility of compromise. The cable can however, be a threat, whether or not you connect it to a power adapter or USB socket.
So, are public charging stations that much of a risk?
Despite security researchers focusing more on “juice jacking” there are hardly any documented cases of attackers weaponizing this channel. Most media coverage on the same topic only concentrates on proofs-of-concept from scholars who work for institutions such as universities and information security organizations. This could be because it is naturally difficult to weaponize a communal charging station.
Just so you know, to hack a communal charging station, the hacker would have to have specific hardware like a miniature computer to install malware and do it without being caught.
Now, what are the chances of that happening in a swamped international airport, where visitors are under high scrutiny and things like screwdrivers are confiscated at check-in? The risk and cost make this technique fundamentally unsuitable for attacks directed at the general public.
Another argument is that these attacks are rather inefficient as they can only corrupt devices that are connected to a charging socket. What’s more, they often bank on security cracks that phone operating system manufacturers such as Google and Apple, routinely patch.
Logically, if an attacker tampers with a communal charging station, it’s probably part of an arranged attack targeting a high-value individual, and not a normal commuter who only wants to capture a few battery bars on their way to work.
How to Protect Yourself from Juice Jacking
Whether “juice jacking” is something that happens more often or not, it is still a threat and users need to be vigilant. If you carry your own adapter, car charger, and cable, then you should be fine. You really don’t want to plug-in your phone into a USB slot beside the bed in an overseas hotel or borrow a cable in the waiting room.
You can also protect yourself by buying specialist defensive technologies that work as a stop cut between the charging socket, your phone, and its cable. Other solutions include getting power-only USB cables that do not have the internal wiring for transferring data.
Powering off the phone before plugging it into the public charging port may also help, though this is not a guaranteed solution for every device out there.
How do I change my USB to charging only?
As discussed above, one of the ways to stay safe while using public charging stations is by having charge-only USB cables. This is not something that you can change on your cable; but there are cables specific for that purpose.
Charging cables only charge your device but cannot transmit data. These cables are different from data cables that do both the charging and the transfer. Data cables generally have 4 wires (negative, positive, data receive and data transfer).
The negative and positive wires transmit electric power to the phone while the remaining two, the data receive and data transfer are liable for data exchange. On the other hand, charge-only cables only contain the negative and positive power wires, without the data exchange wires.
Whether it’s a cordless cell phone charging station or a USB charging system, public charging stations pose a lot of cybersecurity risks to users. Though it may not be clear how big of a risk this is, it is good to be safe than sorry. Take precaution by carrying your own charging solution whenever you are travelling.