From planes to trains, sushi shops to truck stops, there are more opportunities than ever to plug in your mobile device on the go. In this progressive age of free energy and no-strings wireless charging, it may seem the norm to be indiscriminate with where you power up. (No judgement, of course.) However, if you’re not cautious with where you stick your USB stick (or connector), your device may end up catching something undesirable. Namely, malware — or having your data stolen.
While abstinence is the only true way to prevent your device from getting malware at public charging stations or foreign computers, where’s the fun —and practicality— in that? It’s better to be pragmatic and use protection. As Quartz reports, British tech lawyer Neil Brown recently purchased a Portapow “USB condom” and shared it with his Twitter following. He tweeted: “USB condoms: for charging from an untrusted USB port (train, plane etc). Allows power but stops data / sync.”
The tweet received massive engagement, including over 6,000 retweets and nearly 8,000 favourites. Clearly protecting mobile devices against data loss and malware is a topic people are interested in. Or maybe it was just the condom reference…
According to Amazon, Portapow’s gadget will power your phone up to four times faster and, “Your device will not enter ‘data transfer’ mode so there is no risk of data hacking / viruses when charging from an unknown USB socket. Computer USB sockets can be treated like a mains charger.”
Costing about $10 on Amazon, it is a small price to pay compared to losing a device or data to malware. The Telegraph cites a Kaspersky Labs study where researchers were able to install a third-party application (i.e. malware) to a mobile device via its USB connector in under three minutes. They also found that both Android and iOS devices were fairly open with private data while charging, including the device name, device manufacturer, device type, serial number and even a list of files.
“The security risks here are obvious: if you’re a regular user, you can be tracked through your device IDs; your phone could be silently packed with anything from adware to ransomware. And, if you’re a decision-maker in a big company, you could easily become the target of professional hackers,” said Alexey Komarov, researcher at Kaspersky Lab.
From personal and professional emails to social media and where we socialize, mobile devices’ growing ubiquity makes them big targets for hackers. According to the Pew Research Center, 68% of adults in developed nations own a smartphone. Our increasing reliance on online banking alone is cause (or, cost) for concern — 39% of all mobile phone owners with a bank account used mobile banking in 2015 according to the Federal Reserve).
And cyber criminals are already in the lead. According a Business News Wales, 85 million Android phones had been hacked as of July 2016, with 10 million infected with Hummingbird. Techworld reports that from the latter malware alone, hackers were generating $300,000 a month in fraudulent ad revenue.
Besides Portapow’s power chord prophylactics, there are other steps you can take protecting your mobile devices when charging in public. The Telegraph suggests the following:
- Only using trusted computers and USB connectors.
- Protecting your device with a password and/or fingerprint recognition, and not unlocking while it’s charging.
- Using encrypted apps like WhatsApp and iMessage to communicate.
- Installing a reputable antivirus program, and using malware protection. Yes, mobile devices can and should have one!
- Regularly updating your mobile OS to get the most recent bug fixes.
Perhaps it’s easier to remember: “Don’t be smug; think before you plug!” or “The risks are large — be careful where you charge!” Whatever works.