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Is it Safe to Charge Your Phone at an Airport? Experts Say No

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Caleb Barlow, vice-president of X-Force Threat Intelligence at IBM Security, recently told Forbes magazine in an interview that there may be hidden costs when you plug into a USB power charging station. Apparently, savvy criminals can rewire the terminals to fill phones with malware or steal private information. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Charging your phone at the airport?

Not a good idea.

Caleb Barlow, vice-president of X-Force Threat Intelligence at IBM Security, recently told Forbes magazine in an interview that there may be hidden costs when you plug into a USB power charging station. Apparently, savvy criminals can rewire the terminals to fill phones with malware or steal private information.

“Plugging into a public USB port is kind of like finding a toothbrush on the side of the road and deciding to stick it in your mouth,” Barlow told the business publication. “You have no idea where that thing has been.”

New research from the IBN X-FORCE indicates that the transportation industry has become the second-most attacked sector in 2018. “The financial services industry remained the most attacked sector of 2018, accounting for 19 percent of all attacks observed,” the report points out. “However, the transportation industry — which did not even make the top five list last year — moved to the second most attacked sector in 2018, with attempted attacks increasing threefold since the year prior.”

Plugging one’s own charger into a wall socket is safer, he points out. “Let’s say I’m a bad guy … I go into an airport … I’m not going to easily take apart the charging station, but it’s easy just to leave my cord behind,” he told the magazine. “Now, if you see an Apple charging cord, you’re likely to grab it or just plug into it. But inside this cord is an extra chip that deploys the malware, so it charges your phone, but now I own your computer.”

Paul Sems of TrustedSec recently told wkyc.com in Cleveland that criminals and stick their own chip into a USB port or cord to do awful things. “There’s something called Juice-Jacking. There’s Trust-jacking. There’s these sophisticated software packages that can go ahead and disguise your phone and expose your entire phone to a criminal element,” Sems said.

Sems said he recommended that travelers bring their own chargers with them on trips. “It’s the simplest thing Just put it in your bag with you plug in with a regular 100 volt outlet and you’ll be safe. The second thing is {bring a portable charger]…if you want to have another option there are little adapters available that make sure they filter out all data communications so the only thing your getting is power.”

Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, recently told the web site lifehacker.com that travelers can buy what is known as a USB condom. It keeps data exchange through a USB cable from happening by shutting down data pins and permitting just power pins to connect through.

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