Surveillance systems can track the locations of cellphone users and spy on their calls, texts and data streams. The Washington Post has reported on such systems that are being turned against travelers around the world, according to security experts and U.S. officials. The summer season highlights the need to take extra precautions when traveling.
When traveling anywhere in the world, for business or pleasure, citizens need to be aware of and alert to looming physical and cybersecurity threats.
To elaborate on expert security tips, strategies and advice for traveling this summer, we presented several questions to The Chertoff Group, a global security advisory firm that enables clients to navigate changes in security risk, technology and policy. Chris Duvall, Senior Director at The Chertoff Group, offers insights into cybersecurity concerns, physical security precautions, and recommends digital resources/apps for consumers while traveling.
Q: How are security risks – physical and digital – changing? Why are threats greater today than five years ago?
The exponential number of headlines over the past few years is a strong indication that both physical and digital risks are evolving and increasing
Duvall: The exponential number of headlines over the past few years is a strong indication that both physical and digital risks are evolving and increasing. The scope, severity and complexity of physical and cyber risks are increasing and becoming more dangerous and destructive. This is especially true for those traveling outside the U.S.
On the physical side, threat actors are actively seeking “soft targets” – public events, social settings, mass audience venues, etc. – to communicate their message, sow chaos and inflict catastrophic harm.
On the digital or cyber side, we have seen a shift from “thrill hacking,” to an increase of “hacking as a business” (through credential compromise and ransomware), to an increase in “hacking for harm” - with the rise of “nuke ware” and ransomware without a clear financial motivation.
Q. What specific precautions should a traveler take to protect their calls, texts and data streams from being spied on?
Duvall: When traveling abroad, we recommend to our clients that their personnel and executives should practice good internet and social media hygiene. Some best practices include:
- Avoid using public Wi-Fi services—unless you use private VPN service for encryption
- Increase the privacy setting on your technical devices
- Disable location identifiers on apps
- Create a new (unlinked) email for internet correspondence
- Consider purchasing international MyFi devices to decrease the risk of getting your personal identification information (PII) or protected healthcare information (PHI) stolen
- Use temporary (i.e. burner) phones to protect your data and your contacts
Q. What cybersecurity concerns are likely to impact travelers? Are the threats greater outside the United States or in any specific parts of the world?
Significant precautions should be taken to protect personal electronic devices (PEDs) and the data connected to PEDs
Duvall: The international cybersecurity landscape has grown increasingly dynamic, with threats posed by government authorities (in some countries), terrorists, insurgents, and criminals, requiring travelers to be proactive and vigilant. U.S. citizens, particularly executives of U.S.-based technology companies, must be aware that they are considered high-value targets for nation-state intelligence services and criminally-motivated bad actors. Many countries will go to great lengths and expense to acquire and exploit proprietary information from U.S.-based companies, and views U.S. executives visiting the country as “soft” targets of opportunity. As such, significant precautions should be taken to protect personal electronic devices (PEDs) and the data connected to PEDs. The tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) utilized by bad actors are often covert and nearly undetectable by the affected person.
Threat actors routinely access, monitor and utilize Wi-Fi networks at hotels and in public spaces to compromise target devices. Other targeting methods include luggage searches, extensive questioning, and unnecessary inspection and downloading of information from personal electronic devices.
There are numerous, high-risk countries for which the U.S. Government warns travelers to be wary of mobile malware, mobile device privacy attacks and hot spots for mobile botnets. The U.S. Department of State has the most recent and up-to-date list. For example, the U.S. Government has investigated numerous incidents in which U.S. travelers’ PEDs (personal and company devices) have been compromised by Russian authorities while transiting Russian airports, left unattended in public spaces and in travelers’ hotel rooms.
When traveling to an unfamiliar place, research your destination to understand the local roads and transportation, geography, local roads, culture, etiquette and laws
Q: What physical security precautions should a traveler take?
Duvall: Here are some useful precautions:
- When traveling to an unfamiliar place, research your destination to understand the local roads and transportation, geography, local roads, culture, etiquette and laws.
- Protect your personal information and travel itinerary as much as possible.
- Limit the amount of jewelry worn, cash, credit cards and electronic devices carried while traveling.
- Avoid staying on the ground floor of a hotel. Consider choosing a room on the 2nd through 7th floors as these rooms may be more difficult to break into than those on the ground level, but still able to be accessed by fire/emergency response equipment.
- Never answer your hotel room door for anyone until you’ve determined who they are, why they are at your door, and if it is necessary for you to open the door to interact with them.
- Carry a rubber door stop/wedge with you to install on the room side of the door before you go to bed.
- Vary your patterns and routines when venturing out in to a new location, do not become predictable.
- Politely decline offers of food or drink from strangers (If you do accept beverages, ensure that they are in sealed containers and that there is no evidence of tampering).
- Never discuss your itinerary, personal, business or other sensitive information where others can hear you.
Q: How can companies be proactive in protecting their business travelers?
Companies should educate their employees on the importance of maintaining good internet hygiene while traveling abroad
Duvall: When traveling on business, companies should provide their employees with clean computers and cell phones before departure. Upon return, the company should immediately wipe the computer clean to prevent any malicious threats from penetrating the company’s internal, cyber-infrastructure. Additionally, companies should educate their employees on the importance of maintaining good internet hygiene and recommend their employees disconnect from social media platforms while traveling abroad. Some general tips to recommend to your employees when traveling abroad include:
- Register in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (https://step.state.gov/step/)
- Visit Travel.State.Gov to view travel related information specific to the country or countries you’re visiting, including local US Embassy or Consulate contact information, as well as current travel advisories and alerts.
- Always leave a copy of your transportation and hotel itinerary and driver’s license (or passport if traveling internationally) with a family member or trusted friend.
- Always use a baggage tag with a protective cover
- Avoid using public Wi-Fi services
Q: What digital resources and/or apps might a traveler benefit from (and how)?
Duvall: The Chertoff Group recommends researching the below travel-related Apps before departing on a trip:
- TravWell: This app provides destination-specific vaccine recommendations, a checklist of what you need to do to prepare for travel, and a customizable healthy travel packing list. The app can store travel documents, keep records of medications and immunizations, and set reminders to get vaccine booster doses or take medicines.
- My TSA: This app provides real-time updates on airport delays. It includes how long security lines are at various airports; information about what you can and cannot bring onto an airplane; and a frequently-asked question list, including new advanced imaging technology.
- Border Wait Time: The app provides estimated wait times and open-lane status at land ports of entry, which may be particularly helpful when in an area with multiple crossings.
- Mobile Pass: The Mobile Passport app speeds you through U.S. Customs and Border Protection at (1) cruise port and (24) airports
Q: As a security expert, what’s your best advice for travelers?
Duvall: At the end of the day, travel security is not rocket science. Simply put, travelers need to:
- Be aware and situationally alert at all times.
- Be aware and situationally alert to the location of your luggage and carry-ons at all times.
- Don’t access unknown, unsecured or public Wi-Fi if at all possible.
- Turn off “auto connect” features and institute stringent privacy controls as much as possible.
- Try to “blend in” – you don’t have to try to look like a local but travelers should avoid gaudy and expensive attire wherever possible.
- Use your common sense – if an offer, invitation or opportunity seems to good to be true... it probably is.