Take care how you charge your phone when you’re in the hospital

Bob covello
Bob Covello

low battery
We have all found ourselves in the near-panicked position of a nearly drained battery on our mobile device.

When coupled with a visit to a medical facility, it is easy to anticipate that the battery will be depleted long before the visit is completed. (Such is the nature of hospital visits and even casual medical office visits.)

But stop and think before you plug your phone into that handy USB socket for a quick charge.

According to an article on Healthline.com, it seems that there is a disturbing trend among visitors medical facilities, who don’t hesitate to charge up their mobile devices.

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If you look around the hospital room, you will notice that many of devices now have that familiar USB port into which a charging cable will fit. What’s the harm of “plugging in” to snatch a few precious volts while you visit a sick friend or loved one, or as you wait around in the emergency room?

The problem is that the ports on those devices are usually not simple charging stations. Those ports are used by the machine’s technicians to service and update a medical device that may be responsible for keeping someone alive.

Innocently plugging your phone into one of those devices could damage the medical device, rendering it inoperable.

Furthermore, a phone that is already infected with malware could potentially transmit the digital infection, causing the medical device to behave in unpredictable ways long after the phone is unplugged. Imagine the implications when that equipment is called into service in a medical emergency.

And that’s before you consider the possibility of deliberate maliciousness, such as USB sticks which can “fry” electronics within seconds, or whether the charger itself might be malicious.

If you have ever been guilty of borrowing a few volts from a medical device, take heart, as it seems that the medical professionals who work in these facilities are also guilty of the same offense.

Usb chargerPerhaps the manufacturers should take more notice of the danger, and use a low-tech solution to solve the problem, such as a small warning label over those USB ports, or a cap secured with a screw.

If you often find yourself staring at a 10% battery warning, there are many compact devices that you can carry that will allow you to charge up when your battery is running low.

The small investment in one of your own personal charger is a much better idea than plugging into an unknown USB port. In the case of a health facility, it could possibly be a life-saver.

Bob Covello (@BobCovello) is a 20-year technology veteran and InfoSec analyst with a passion for security topics. He is also a volunteer for various organizations focused on advocating for and advising others about staying safe and secure online.

10 comments on “Take care how you charge your phone when you’re in the hospital”

  1. DavidN

    Yikes! The fact that manufacturers of life-and-death equipment would leave them so susceptible to random 'plugging-ins' is real quite alarming.

  2. Vesselin Bontchev

    Aw, what a bunch of nonsense and FUD. So, according to the author, the medical devices are likely to conduct a BadUSB attack on our phones? Or maybe our phones are likely to "accidentally" conduct such an attack on them? Ridiculous.

    And if you are worried that an unknown USB port can get inappropriate access to your phone, buy an "USB condom" (google it). It's a device that connects between your device and the foreign USB port, allowing only electricity to pass (and charge your phone) but no communication.

    1. Bob Covello · in reply to Vesselin Bontchev

      What an oddly indefensible position you have chosen here.
      I am willing to accept that the "usb attack" scenario may not be the likely problem, however, could you, in good conscience, selfishly plug into a medical device with even the faintest knowledge that it could harm the medical device? That is a tough position to defend.

      1. coyote · in reply to Bob Covello

        He apparently doesn't have a conscious or working moral compass. He would of course complain about it if it affected him directly (possibly even indirectly) and I find often in these types of people they would still not think much of their actions.

        And I mean indirectly in both that it affects someone he might care about and also the inconvenience of it not working to charge his precious phone. Clearly his phone is far more important than human life. He also doesn't care that he's not paying for the power he's using (which is more correctly stealing).

        A selfish coward doesn't really care who (or what) they harm as long as they get their own way (and it is much worse when 'own way' means being able to charge a phone).

    2. Lab ratty · in reply to Vesselin Bontchev

      It may be ridiculous to you. In my experience *many* embedded devices are running old versions of Windows internally, often without any form of patching regime, and in many cases the vendor prohibits the owner/hospital/facility from updating or altering the OS in any way. They leave the USB port on as it is a simple way for their technicians to perform updates not realising how popular these now are as generic phone charger ports. So yes, they're vulnerable to just about any rubbish that you plug into the USB port, which makes them exploitable if someone plugs in a compromised USB device. (a work colleague spent half a day last week cleaning a genome sequencer from some form of Windows malware that got in in precisely this way and was only found because it got out on the next persons USB drive who found it and let the lab know)

    3. coyote · in reply to Vesselin Bontchev

      Vesselin I just want to say you are incredibly selfish and you clearly have no regard for those in need of care (and arguably only care about your precious phone). It's people like you who will whine the most when someone or something adversely affects them (e.g. you). That is hypocritical but as someone who has been in many emergency situations (and in the emergency department of hospitals countless times), I would have zero sympathy for someone like you; I would argue you would deserve it. Others, however, do not deserve it.

      No, no, no and no, this is not nonsense and this is not FUD. But what your response is is a fallacy. He never said it will result in this; he said it CAN result in this. And the fact you don't really care about the safety of the devices says a lot.

      If his statements are ridiculous then you are arrogant and an utter disgrace. Stop. The latter is true regardless.

      Consider yourself lucky if you have rarely been in medical emergencies rather than disregard others who are in medical emergencies. Taking life for granted and being ungrateful for the things you have (that you want) and the things you don't have (that you wouldn't want) is also a disgrace. You know, not everyone is as well off as others. It *could* be you eventually (and you’d deserve it). Shameful and also disgusting.

  3. Littlefeet

    It's watts you'd be borrowing, not volts.

    1. Jerry MacKay · in reply to Littlefeet

      Doubly incorrect … You are taking, not borrowing, Coulombs (or Ampere-Hours), not Watts, from the power supply, as the common phrase phrase – "charging" my battery – implies. Neither volts (a unit measure of electric potential) nor watts (a unit measure of electrical power transfer) is appropriate here.

      1. coyote · in reply to Jerry MacKay
  4. RodFer

    Well I guess that through a USB port might be possible the transfer of malware. Even through power lines it might be possible, since there are ways to transfer data through them. So I would not connect my phone charger to such outlets dedicated to save lives.

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