Plugging in the power — or at least what you think is power — to a USB-C powered laptop can connect your computer, and the valuable personal data on it, directly to hackers. Your personal financial information, passwords and documents stored on the laptop could help a cyber-criminal steal your identity. The laptop may even be used to attack your employer’s computers and network.
The European Union is already moving to require all smartphones be compatible with USB-C power adapters – itself a move that endangers users’ privacy. If the EU made a similar standard for laptop computers, it would threaten to make the problem worse, by increasing the number of people vulnerable to what is basically the digital equivalent of pick-pocketing.
Mobile phones have been hackers’ targets for years. Phones that are left behind or stolen can contain sensitive personal data that can let a criminal open a new bank account or take out a loan.
However, a far more insidious way to get the data is to simply connect to the phone and steal everything it holds. As the phone is not lost, the user may be unaware that anything is wrong. Attackers try to get access to mobile phones via their internet connections and local wireless connection technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
But some attackers are finding a weakness in phone charging. Many newer phones use the same port – one of several types of USB – for both connecting to a computer and charging. A charger could be modified to attack your phone via that trusted connection. This has led some researchers to recommend never using public USB chargers for your smartphone.
Older mobile phones, including some smartphones that used power-only connections didn’t have to worry about this issue. Users of these devices can plug in to public multi-device charging stations without worry, as there is no connection to the device’s data. For those with combined data and power ports, however, the same port that many people only use to power their phone is commonly used by hackers and even law enforcement to access the data on it.
Until recently, laptop computers had enjoyed some protection, with most having a dedicated power port to connect their chargers to. Other purpose-specific ports allowed connections to desktop monitors, conference room projectors and other devices, without need for concern. USB-C changed this, with one high-speed port now able to provide and receive power, send video signals to projectors and monitors, and connect to USB thumb drives and numerous other peripheral devices.
Most of the time, this is extremely convenient, reducing the number of different ports needed on today’s lightweight and compact laptops. However, it also allows criminals to attack the computer of an unsuspecting user who is just trying to charge the device’s battery.
With the European Union potentially requiring phone makers to standardize on USB-C chargers to reduce waste and provide consumer flexibility, similar rules for laptops may not be far behind. In any case, people with laptops powered by USB-C and those who connect to USB-C screens and projectors in public areas need to be vigilant.