Alert: Officials warn about the dangers of using public USB charging stations

Travelers are advised to avoid using public USB power charging stations in airports, hotels, and other locations because they may contain dangerous malware, the Los Angeles District Attorney said in a security alert published last week.

USB connections were designed to work as both data and power transfer mediums, with no strict barrier between the two. As smartphones became more popular in the past decade, security researchers figured out they could abuse USB connections that a user might think was only transferring electrical power to hide and deliver secret data payloads.

This type of attack received its own name, as “juice jacking.”

Across the years, several proofs-of-concept were created. The most notorious is Mactans, presented at the Black Hat 2013 security conference, which was a malicious USB wall charger that could deploy malware on iOS devices.

Three years later, in 2016, security researcher Samy Kamkar took the concept further with KeySweeper, a stealthy Arduino-based device, camouflaged as a functioning USB wall charger that wirelessly and passively sniffs, decrypts, logs, and reports back (over GSM) all keystrokes from any Microsoft wireless keyboard in the vicinity.

Following Kamkar’s release of KeySweeper, the FBI sent out a nation-wide alert at the time, warning organizations against the use of USB chargers and asking companies to review if they had any such devices in use.

Also, in 2016, another team of researchers developed another proof-of-concept malicious USB wall charger. This one could record and mirror the screen of a device that was plugged in for a charge. The technique become known as “video jacking.”

The LA District Attorney’s warning [PDF] covers many attack vectors, because there’s different ways that criminals can abuse USB wall chargers.

The most common way is via “pluggable” USB wall chargers. These are portable USB charging devices that can be plugged into an AC socket, and criminals can easily leave some of these behind “by accident” in public places, at public charging stations.

There are also USB chargers encased directly inside power charging stations installed in public places, were the user only has access to a USB port. However, LA officials say criminals can load malware onto public charging stations, so users should avoid using the USB port, and stick to using the AC charging port instead.

But the LA DA’s warning also applies to USB cables that have been left behind in public places. Microcontrollers and electronic parts have become so small these days that criminals can hide mini-computers and malware inside a USB cable itself. One such example is the O.MG Cable. Something as benign as a USB cable can hide malware nowadays.

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