Beware of Public Charging Kiosks and Stations

February 28, 2017

by Martin England

Updated: April 8, 2019

Conference season is ripe. People from all over the university are attending various professional development opportunities across the country and beyond.

If there’s a common sentiment among conference attendees, it’s the fear of dwindling battery life on phones and tablets. At these events, every device is competing for wireless or cellular access at once, which drains batteries quickly. How am I supposed to tweet, email, or use the conference app without my phone? Sure, you could carry your laptop around, but phones and tablets are mobile-friendly (most fit on your person without the inconvenience of carrying a backpack around all day), and nobody wants to worry about laptop security when they step away to top off their coffee.

So you shuffle between sessions with a constant eye on your diminishing battery, trying to recall a time when phones didn’t hold us hostage over experiencing life and presence. And then, just ahead in the lobby a public charging station appears - the Valhalla of battery saviors, usually sponsored by the latest tech start-up. Exit anxiety, enter the warm comfort of a fully-charged device. I mean, hey, who cares if you miss a session or two, right?

Public device charging kiosks are convenient and can be found in most airports, parks, hotels, and conference centers. But most come with unseen consequences, especially those which use USB cables to charge your device: they mine personal data on your device, everything from contacts to stored personal information, without consent. Some charging kiosks will also introduce malware into your phone’s operating system, which attacks your computer once it's paired with your device. This practice is also known as ‘Juice Jacking.’ Sure, it’s nice to have a fully-charged phone, but at what cost? Disabling USB transfer mode typically doesn’t work on these stations, as many will automatically enable your phone’s settings to allow for this very thing. If you must use a public charging kiosk, power down your device first, but this should be an absolute last resort.

Safe alternatives exist. Personal chargers are available for a reasonable fee (most vendor exhibits even give them away), and the latest models are no longer the size of a car battery. Another alternative is to carry your device charging cable with you, so long as you can locate a power outlet, not always an easy task in public places.

There’s another price to be paid for constantly worrying about your battery life, and although it has nothing to do with security, it still compromises us: the diluted experience. We hear a lot these days about being present, staying in the moment, and experiencing life to the fullest, and yet, none of these are truly possible if we are always looking at our phones. Fear of missing out has replaced our desire to be mindful.

Quick story: every year my wife and I attend the Newport Folk Festival with our friends. It’s an outdoor, summer festival with approximately 10,000 attendees. When 10,000 phones try to access the same cellular towers at once in the heat (no public wifi exists), devices drop like flies. A few years ago, public charging kiosks started appearing, and people would spend the better part of an hour standing in line just to charge their device instead of enjoying the festival, and even more time waiting for their phones to charge. Thankfully, these stations have disappeared almost as quickly as they were introduced, possibly because festival organizers caught on to the devious activities executed by the hosting companies. Or maybe (just maybe) they didn’t want to enable the distracting behavior of attendees trying to capture every minute of every set on their devices, taking endless selfies with their friends with the band in the background while the said band was performing, or (yes) taking phone calls while the show was occurring. Whatever the case, we now see fewer and fewer devices held over people’s heads during live performances, probably not because there’s been a sudden influx of manners, but because their phones are likely dead. In the end, sometimes a dead battery isn’t all bad.

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