What is ‘juice jacking’? Don’t use public charging stations, say experts

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We’ve all been there: out in public, no plans to return home anytime soon, and your cellphone battery is running dangerously low. It’s an anxiety-inducing situation for a lot of people.

You might be tempted to use one of the free charging stations that are increasingly popping up in public places, but if you do, you could be putting yourself and your data at risk.

The FBI cautioned against using public charging stations in shopping malls, airports and hotels recently, tweeting a warning to Americans.

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“Bad actors have figured out ways to use public USB ports to introduce malware and monitoring software onto devices,” the FBI’s Denver field office warned earlier this month.

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This illegal activity is also known as “juice jacking” and while it’s not new, it’s a good reminder that not all charging methods are created equal.

How juice jacking works

According to online security company Norton, juice jacking happens when cyber bandits maliciously load malware onto the USB port or the USB cable attached to a public charging station.

From there, they are able to infect your phone, tablet or computer with a virus that can “track your keystrokes or even steal your data.”

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Because a device’s power supply and data stream pass through the same cable, devices can share information, making a public charging station a pathway of access to a cybercriminal.

Not only can your data be stolen, warns Norton, but thieves can also install malware onto your device, making it possible for them to clone your phone data and transfer it back to their own device. They can also gather data like GPS location, social media interactions, private messages, credit card information, photos and more.

How to protect your device and data

Juice jacking is by no means a new form of cyberattack. The term was coined back in 2011, and governments have been warning about it for years.

Canada’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner shared advice on how to avoid malware attacks while out and about in 2020, advising Canadians to avoid public charging stations, USB cords and unverified public Wi-Fi connections.

Instead, they suggest that Canadians should charge their phones in public only if they “know where the cords were purchased or who operates the charging stations and Wi-Fi spots.”

They also suggest that Canadians “in general, buy computer and technical supplies from reputable outlets and avoid offers that seem too good to be true.” Global News has requested updated or more recent advice from the privacy commissioner’s office and is awaiting reply.

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The Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. also advises that people can avoid juice jacking by carrying their own charger and USB cord and using a regular wall outlet to charge their devices.

Alternatively, portable chargers and external batteries that have been pre-charged at home will ensure a safe battery boost while you’re on the go.

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