How to Safely Use Airport Charging Stations

Public charging can be risky but there are ways to keep your data secure

Young girl looking at her phone while its charging in an airport terminal.

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Stroll through any airport terminal, and you’ll likely spot a USB charging station inviting you to recharge your phone before your flight. But the question is, are airport phone charging stations safe? And if not, is there a way to use them without risking your data? The answer is yes, but you’ll have to prepare ahead of time.

Why Connecting to Airport Charging Stations Can Be Risky

It’s easy to forget how much personal information your smartphone contains. You might think of it as primarily a device for staying in touch with people or running a few apps, but it's likely you also use it for email, snapping pictures, tracking your fitness goals, paying for goods with Apple Pay or Google Pay, and countless other activities. The modern smartphone is at the very center of our digital lives, collecting and generating information about us all the time.

For nefarious actors, getting a hold of that data can be very profitable. But rather than targeting individuals one by one, it’s always more economical for the bad guys to scoop up as much information as they can, using the most innocuous methods possible. And that’s why airport charging stations are such an excellent vector for attack.

By installing a modified USB socket, attackers can automatically run malware on a connected device. That malicious code can then scrape the device and transmit data back to remote servers, even after a smartphone is disconnected. And with countless travelers all looking to charge up their smartphones throughout the day, there's almost certainly a steady supply of vulnerable devices.

How to Safely Use Airport USB Charging Stations

Even though the threat of data theft is real, you shouldn't let it put you off using USB charging stations completely. After all, airports install such stations for travelers' convenience. Instead, you should think about ways to mitigate the risks.

USB cables have two functions; they let you transfer data between devices and allow you to charge connected gadgets. Fortunately, there are ways to ensure a connected USB cable can only charge your device, but not access the data on it.

Use a USB Charger Adapter

The simplest thing you can do is carry a USB charger adapter like the Juice-Jack Defender or the PortaPow USB Data Blocker.

These USB attachments serve as an intermediary, blocking the data pins on your cable and only allowing power to pass between your device and the charging station. They’re convenient because you don’t have to carry multiple cables for different devices (i.e. Micro USB-to-USB, Lighting-to-USB). Instead, all you do is attach an adapter to the device you wish to charge at that particular time.

Use a Power-Only USB Cable

If you don’t need to charge multiple devices with different connections, it may be more convenient to carry a power-only USB cable.

These look identical to a regular USB cable, but they omit the data pins entirely, leaving you with just the outer two pins for power transfer. With no physical data connection between your device and the charging port, there's no path for malware to reach your device. Of course, because they look similar to a regular USB cable, it can be confusing to have to always swap between them, but if you don't want to carry additional adapters, these cables are a great solution.

How to Convert a Regular USB Cable to a Power-Only USB Cable

If all you have is a regular data-and-power USB cable, it's possible to convert it to a power-only USB cable using some scissors and sticky tape.

This is the riskiest method, because not only can you damage your USB cable, it’s also not guaranteed to completely prevent data transfer between your device and a USB charging station.

  1. Trim some sticky tape down so it will fit inside the USB connector, covering the two data pins (the inner pins) entirely.

    Ensure you leave some excess tape so you can secure it to the outside of the USB connector, thereby making the tape easier to remove later.

  2. Ensure the power pins (the outer two pins) are not obscured by the tape.

  3. Carefully slide the tape in, covering the data pins only. Press down using a paperclip or something similarly small enough to secure the tape in place. Be careful to not scratch any of the pins.

  4. Secure the tape on the outside and trim any excess.