The FBI recently identified another security risk that we all need to be aware of when we are at the airport. Now we not only need to worry about unattended bags, keeping an eye on suspicious behavior of other would-be travelers, and avoiding use of “free” wifi that might be a ruse offered by hackers, we also need to avoid plugging into the USB ports at public charging stations at airports–or any other public places.
The FBI’s Denver office notes that hackers “have figured out ways to use public USB ports to introduce malware and monitoring software onto devices,” so you should carry your own charger and USB cord and use a standard electrical outlet instead. The FCC has weighed in on this risk, too. The hacking technique, alliteratively called “juice jacking,” involves the hackers loading malware directly into the public USB port that can then automatically load to your cellphone when it is plugged into the charging port. The risk exists because USB cables are designed to both transfer power and transfer data–which means that if the device with the “free” USB port has been hacked, it becomes a handy way to implant bad code onto the devices of unsuspecting travelers who just want to make sure they’ve got sufficient power to operate their phones or laptops while they are in the airport.
Once the malware is on your phone, it could allow the hackers to access your data and ongoing communications, use the information to commit identity theft, instruct your bank to transfer funds, prepare targeted “spearphishing” efforts that draw upon your personal information, or do any of the countless other evil things that hackers routinely do. You can avoid this risk by bringing your own uninfected charging cable and wall plug and then plugging them directly into an AC outlet–which is designed simply to transmit power, and not transfer data, too.
Airports are increasingly risky places these days, and the criminal element is always coming up with new ways to take advantage of common behavior–like the concern about having enough juice for your phone while you wait at the gate–to achieve their nefarious ends. At the airport, regrettably, it is safer to trust nothing and no one.