If you own any sort of mobile device, inevitably it needs to be charged at some point. Most of us consider charging to be the least dangerous thing you can do – the biggest risk is a fire, and that’s only when it’s plugged in to a wall charger and left to get too hot. Even then, the risk of something happening is fairly small.
Because cybercriminals continue to find new and clever ways to steal information, though, it seems that even charging your device is about to become a potentially risky activity, if you use your computer to boost its battery power. That’s right: Thanks to a new type of malware, simply connecting your device to your laptop or desktop computer could lead to a malware infection.
How Charging Attacks Work
You might be thinking “How could charging my device introduce malware? I’m just giving the phone more power!” As it turns out, this type of attack is deceptively simple – and with little more than a USB cable a PC, a hacker can steal sensitive information and send malware to any type of mobile device in less than three minutes.
This is because USB ports on computers and mobile devices are designed to handle both charging and data transfer. Whenever a new device is connected via USB, it has to “handshake” with the computer to complete the connection. This process requires sharing at least a small amount of data, a process that the hackers have taken advantage of to steal private data from a smartphone or tablet. Among the data that’s shared in that connection? The device name and type, serial number, information about the operating system and firmware, and the electronic chip ID. This information can be used to track your device and everything you do with it, putting other private data at risk.
In addition to the information that’s transferred in the USB connection, such a connection could also allow for the silent transfer of malware to your device from the infected PC. Adware, ransomware, and other harmful applications can easily be sent to your device from the PC, all while you think that nothing is happening but a battery charge.
Protecting Your Device
So now you might be wondering how you can keep your phone charged without putting it at risk. Keep in mind that there’s only a risk if you charge via a USB port; if you charge using an electrical outlet, you are not at risk for malware.
However, since it’s not always practical to charge via outlet, you need to take steps to protect your device and information. To do so:
Install antivirus protection: Cloud-based antivirus protection for your mobile device as well as your PC and MAC is the best option, as it will provide continuous real-time updates to protect against malware threats.
Avoid public charging stations: Hackers look for opportunities, and public charging stations that are connected to a central PC are a prime opportunity for spreading malware. Only use trusted USB stations to power your device.
Use biometric security: If your device offers a fingerprint scan for security, use it.
Avoid unlocking your device while charging: If you unlock your device using a passcode and open any applications, you’re potentially exposing sensitive information to hackers. If you need to access your device, wait until it’s completely charged or disconnect while in use.
Protect data in the cloud: Transferring your data to cloud-based storage or other applications can make it vulnerable to hacking. Be sure that anything you transfer to and from the cloud is encrypted, especially if using a public Wi-Fi network. Remember: Hackers attacking devices via charging stations are looking for access to additional data, so don’t access your cloud storage while charging.
Invest in a portable charger: If you travel a lot, a portable battery charging device will allow you to charge without having to expose your device to public networks. Some portable chargers can even give you 100 percent battery power in a few minutes. You might also consider conserving battery use while on the go so you won’t need to charge until you’re in a safer spot. If your device has a low power mode, use it, and close out any applications that you don’t need to use.
Hacking via charging stations is just the latest trick in cybercriminals’ arsenal, it it definitely won’t be the last. Simply being aware of the risks, though, and taking steps to protect yourself, will help keep your data safe.