Do public charging stations really steal your phone’s data?

This month, the Denver office of the FBI issued a warning about avoiding public smartphone charging stations through its Twitter account. The tweet said that evildoers could tamper with them in a way that would allow the planting of malware on or the siphoning of data from connected phones.

And last week, as if to amplify that warning, the Federal Communications Commission updated an existing blog post with its own caution against the use of charging stations.

What’s going on here? Has there been a sudden rash of incidents in which smartphones have been harmed by malicious software planted via charging kiosks? Why should we suddenly be very, very afraid?

The answer: No, nothing unusual happened to cause the FBI’s warning. News site Axios contacted the FBI’s Denver location and was told that the tweet was simply a “regular reminder.”

Nothing to see here, folks, except maybe a press release-du-jour. Move along.

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Many news outlets jumped on the warning anyway, generating a slew of stories. There wasn’t much context, and none cited examples of this kind of attack occurring in the wild.

Theoretically, connecting to a public charging station that’s been compromised could allow malware to be planted on a smartphone or tablet, or the stealing of information. This type of attack has been dubbed “juice-jacking” by researchers, and was first shown to be possible a decade ago. But if it has happened outside of a laboratory or an information security conference demo, it’s difficult to find any reports of it.

“The NSA famously had a phone charging station set up at a trade show booth, kinda daring people to use it,” said Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University who focuses on security issues. “I don’t really know if there are live attacks in the field or not.”

That’s despite the fact that public charging stations are everywhere. You see them in airports, malls, hospital waiting rooms, retail locations, college campuses. They often have multiple cables sprouting…