Hey Dave! My techie friend told me the other day that my phone can get malware by plugging it into an airport charging station? If I’m just getting power, how can that adversely affect my phone?
Your friend is correct. There are a number of variables that affect whether this is a legit danger or not, but yes, you can theoretically get malware on your phone simply by plugging it into a malicious charging station.
In fact, the Los Angeles District Attorneys Office issued a warning a few weeks ago about this very danger. “Travelers should avoid using public USB power charging stations in airports, hotels and other locations because they may contain dangerous malware."
But let’s dig deeper because it’s a risk, but it’s a tiny risk, one that realistically you aren’t going to encounter unless you’re extraordinarily unlucky and inattentive both.
Modern smartphones keep track of all trusted devices authorized for data transfer. If you did encounter a device masquerading as a charging station your phone would ask if you wanted to trust the device before it was allowed access to your data. Answer “Don’t Trust” and you’re safe.
Not only that, but there are two kinds of cables in the market: charging and data. You’ve probably seen cables advertised as data cables. The difference is important. Imagine that to transfer actual data the cable needs an additional wire; without it, the device can get power to charge your device, but it can’t sync. Mostly this causes frustration – “Why can’t my phone sync with my computer?" – but if you know you have a charge-only cable, that’s an easy addition to your travel kit.
The better solution, however, is to carry your own charging adapter: with that in your travel kit, you’ll never have to worry about malicious charging stations.
Or you can use my solution, as shown above: Use an external battery charger like one of the slick MyCharge devices that have a battery of their own, built-in cables and flip-out prongs so you can plug it into any wall outlet. You can hook up your phone while the device is charging or just charge the device, then charge your phone off the device at a later time. [Here’s a typical unit, an excellent stocking stuffer: https://amzn.to/35ear9y ]
I’m all about being cautious and alert — I routinely check gas pumps for possible skimmers — but this particular warning is 99% hooey in my opinion. US airports in particular have a lot of stringent safety and security regulations that make it incredibly unlikely some scammers will be able to install a malicious device in a passenger waiting area.
Still, be careful out there. An ounce of prevention, and all that. Carry charging gear and you’ll be fine in even the most sketch and dubious parts of the world.