Many of us travel extensively and there is inevitably a time when your portable device alerts you that it needs power—often in an airport, mall or other public place. More often, “charging stations” are becoming a fixture in airports, malls and even bars, making it convenient to pull up a chair and plug in your device.Many people think charging stations are just a power plug—but that’s a myth. USB cables, whether being used to power up or synchronize your mobile device to a laptop or home PC, are capable of high-speed transfers of data—both legitimate and malicious. Using a public USB connection or charging station can be a risk to your device’s data.
The term “juice jacking” has been around for several years but has recently entered the mainstream as more locations offer USB charging for portable devices. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently issued a warning about juice jacking and data loss in cars that use these systems. The FTC recommends choosing “don’t trust” when you plug into a system you are not familiar with, which will give you some level of protection.
The ability to steal data from a USB connection stems from the design of the USB cable itself. Like a data cable that connects your PC to a network, several pairs of wires in the USB are responsible for data transfer and one pair is responsible for powering up the mobile device. Small computing devices placed inside a USB charging port using varieties of malware can invade and/or compromise data, as well as planting malware on the device, while charging your device. The more charge you need, the greater the risk of exposure.
To prevent an intrusion, there are several steps you can take:
- Purchase a charge-only USB cable; these are sold for both Apple and Android products. A simple Google search of “USB cable charge only” will bring up a number of choices. Having one of these cables when you travel is a great idea, especially if you are in the habit of forgetting the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) power brick for your device.
- Purchase a “juice bar.” These portable chargers can be a real life-saver when you are in a place where power simply isn’t available. They also come in a variety of sizes that recharge mobile devices from a small phone to a laptop. I recommend a minimum of 10,000 mAh, which can provide multiple full-battery charges of small to medium-sized personal devices.
- Finally, it is recommended to carry a 120v plug-in USB charging brick. The one that came with your device is usually the best. Many vendors customize voltage and power flow for a charging brick based on the device it was designed to use. If you need to purchase a new one, make sure the electrical specifications of the brick you are buying will be adequate for the device.
Airports, restaurants and bars are places that bustle with activity. While the convenience of being able to plug in and charge a device may seem like a great benefit when your battery is running low, taking simple steps can help to minimize your exposure to malicious users can pay dividends. When using a power source, always be mindful that busy public places can be full of distractions, keep your eye on your device at all times. If you have to move from your chair to get to your device in the wall, it’s too far away. The maximum distance should be no more than bending your elbow. If this option is not available, be safe and use your “juice bar.”