A “USB Condom” has been released to protect smartphones and other mobile devices from being infected with potential malware, viruses, and other foreign (potentially dangerous) programs. This digital form of protection has already sold out on the American engineer’s website, where the product blurb colorfully describes to customers that if you’re going to run around plugging your phone into strange USB ports, then you should at least be safe about it.
The USB Condom is a solution in response to growing fear over something called “Juice Jacking” where hackers use your mobile device’s peripheral or charging ports to gain access to their network and introduce malicious software. There were many solutions of this kind demonstrated at the latest hacker conference Black Hat earlier this year, with researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology showing off a counterfeit Apple charger capable of compromising any iOS device.
Basically hackers use a charger called Mactans that looks identical to an authentic Apple product. It hides malicious software from the victim in much the same way Apple hides its own built in applications from its users as well. Another popular method of gaining unauthorized access to your mobile system is Juice Jacking (mentioned earlier briefly), which takes advantage of public charging stations in highly crowded areas such as airports and train stations. These small ports are usually a life saver for the traveler whose phone has lost its battery and who needs to check train times, emails, or make an important phone call. Unfortunately this also makes the traveler (such as yourself) an easy target for hacking.
Most phones are configured to go into data transfer mode once a USB cable is connected, and hackers can take advantage of this, setting up fake charging stations to siphon off unsuspecting individuals’ data. The USB Condom prevents against these sort of attacks by blocking the USB connectors data pins (used to transfer information on and off the phone) but leaving the power pins free (these are the ones that do the actual charging).
Since most phones are set up to allow data transfer just by connecting to a USB port, the USB Condoms work by blocking the data transmitters and receivers of a USB port without blocking the charging components. Public charging stations, while seemingly innocent, often use USB ports that support data transfer. The chances of you running into a nefarious charging station may seem miniscule, but it only takes one instance of data theft or malware installation to ruin your day. Think of it like an ATM skimmer; even if the charging station is legitimate, your data could still be siphoned.
If you carry extra user-replaceable batteries with you or have a regular outlet plug, you don’t need to worry, but unfamiliar USB ports should be used with caution. It’s not always clear exactly who set them up or where the connection goes. Of course, a USB Condom could help calm your fears if you’re desperate enough to charge up at a public station.
The company behind this (and the engineer’s project) goes by the name of Int3.cc. The USB Condoms are currently sold out on Int3.cc’s website, but they state that they should be getting more inventories soon and are taking preorders now as well.