Charging with Caution: The FBI's Take on Public USB Ports

In an age where our mobile devices are essential extensions of ourselves, staying charged is a priority.

by Faruk Imamovic
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Charging with Caution: The FBI's Take on Public USB Ports
© Getty Images Entertainment/Bryan Bedder

In an age where our mobile devices are essential extensions of ourselves, staying charged is a priority. But the next time you're out and about and your battery is running low, you might want to think twice before plugging into that public charging station.

A Warning from the FBI

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently cautioned consumers about the perils of using public phone charging stations. Last week, the FBI’s Denver branch tweeted a stark warning: avoid these stations to shield your devices from malevolent software.

Such public USB hubs, commonly spotted in places like malls and airports, have become potential platforms for miscreants to disperse malware and surveillance programs. Interestingly, the agency stopped short of citing specific incidents, leaving some to wonder about the scope and scale of the threat.

Their guidance, however, was unambiguous: “Carry your own charger and USB cord and use an electrical outlet instead”.

The Age-old Threat of 'Juice Jacking'

Although these charging stations are a boon for many with devices on the brink of dying, this isn't the first time their safety has been called into question.

Almost a decade ago, in 2011, the term “juice jacking” was birthed by researchers to label this very risk. Drew Paik, who once belonged to the security firm Authentic8, shed light on the matter during a 2017 CNN interview: “Just by plugging your phone into a [compromised] power strip or charger, your device is now infected, and that compromises all your data”.

The logic behind this is rather straightforward. The same cord that revives your phone also facilitates data transfer between devices. For instance, transferring photos from an iPhone to a Mac is seamless with the charging cable.

If a port is tainted, cybercriminals potentially have unfettered access to a goldmine: emails, texts, photos, contacts, and more.

A Timely Reminder

Despite the alarming nature of the revelation, the FBI insists that such announcements are routine.

“The FBI regularly provides reminders and public service announcements in conjunction with our partners,” stated Vikki Migoya, the public affairs officer at the FBI’s Denver office. “This was a general reminder for the American public to stay safe and diligent, especially while traveling”.

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