Whether you use Android or an iPhone, you’ve probably collected a fair tangle of charging cables by now: USB-C, micro-USB, mini-USB, lightning, you name it.
Moreover, a lot of other devices use the same cables to charge: Bluetooth headphones, speakers, keyboards, mice, photo cameras and more. Chances are you have a charging cable right now in your bag or on your desk.
But how much do you trust your charging cable? Did it come with the device? Is it the cheapest replacement you found online? Did you just borrow it from someone? Do you even remember where you got it?
These questions would usually seem silly, but not anymore because apparently not all chargers are what they seem. Although they look identical to the original, some can turn out to be complex electronic contraptions meant to track you, hack your devices, or even destroy them in a hardware attack.
The little cable that could
In a video posted on his YouTube channel, that quickly scooped up over 1.2 million views, British tech vlogger Arun Maini, also known as Mrwhosetheboss, quickly demonstrates how a USB stick, a charging cable, and a USB adapter that look like ordinary tech products can be used to remotely control a computer they’re plugged into, track your location if connected and wreak all kinds of havoc, from stealing passwords and information to deploying malware and destroying the device.
While Maini’s approach isn’t the most scientific one, and attack hardware like weaponized USB sticks have been around for a long time – for example, they’ve famously been used to attack a nuclear plant in the Middle East after an employee working at an industrial facility wanted to watch La La Land on his lunch break – he does prove a scary point.
Weaponized charging cables that look just like the real deal are commercially available and can be used even by the untrained. They can double as functioning charging cables and can even self-destruct if the malicious actor who planted them wants to cover his tracks.
What can you do to stay safe?
So, how can you tell a fake charging cable from a real one? You can’t. The only way to protect yourself, your home devices and maybe even your work devices is by only using your own cables. If they break, buy new ones, but do it from a trusted source. It may cost extra but it won’t bring up any surprises.
Additionally, it’s a good idea to avoid using borrowed cables, or even worse, cables you just find casually lying around. This also applies to USB sticks you find on the ground. It may be tempting to see what’s on them, but it’s not worth the risk.