People face a number of risks when traveling: some minor, like sunburn, while others are more sinister. Travelers make a great target for online wrongdoers who know people on-the-go are easier to hack.
“[Travelers] may be tempted to cut corners,” Nat Wood, associate director of consumer and business education at the Federal Trade Commission told Nextgov. “If you look at government breaches that are announced … a lot of them are people not taking basic steps to protect their basic information.”
But fear not. Here are some tips you can follow to help prevent you and your data from falling into one of these cyber traps as you traverse the globe.
Level 1: Protect Your Devices
Before even leaving home, shore up your devices’ security. First, ensure all software is up to date to protect against the latest malware threats. Many programs update automatically, but double check that all your operating systems, browsers and apps are running the latest version.
Secondly, backup all your files to a home computer or cloud service. Traveling brings with it many opportunities to lose, break or otherwise damage your devices, and a full backup will ensure nothing gets lost.
Finally, assess your privacy by checking your devices’ location services and consider turning them off. Apps like Find My Friends and location tags on social media tell people you’re out of town and that your home, car and other possessions will be unattended.
Level 2: Avoid Public Networks
Many of the most common methods used to gain access to strangers’ information involve insecure internet networks. Public hotspots at coffee shops, airports and hotels don’t often use encryption, giving hackers free rein to gather data from everyone connected to the network. It goes without saying, you should stay off public computers as well.
Man-in-the-middle attacks, which allow hackers to collect information by inserting themselves between a computer and the network it’s trying to connect with, occur frequently with public Wi-Fi, Wood said.
The best way to avoid the risks posed by public Wi-Fi is to avoid it all together, but if you absolutely must use the internet, take the necessary steps to protect yourself.
Virtual private networks offer fairly simple and safer access to the internet. A VPN works by linking your device and its provider’s network through an encrypted connection, keeping your activity private and inaccessible to others on public Wi-Fi. Many VPN services protect your data for a fee, but a number of solid, free options are available as well.
In addition to using a VPN, stop your devices from auto-connecting to public networks and Bluetooth. Just as some internet connections present cybersecurity risks, so too can Bluetooth networks. This holds especially true for rental car infotainment systems. Many of these consoles will store personal information, including geolocation data, your contact lists and message logs. Future drivers, employees and hackers may get access to information left stored in the system. If you plan to connect a device to a rental car’s infotainment system, make sure to clear any stored data before returning it.
Level 3: Real Deal Cybersecurity
If you want to go above and beyond the basic strategies for online protection, try these more involved tips.
One useful strategy to keep hackers off your private accounts is to clear all search history and stored information like passwords and login credentials. The Center for Internet Security recommends going as far as changing all usernames and passwords before traveling and changing them again upon your return. Also, delete any software, apps or plugins you don’t need during your trip.
If possible, access only encrypted websites that use HTTPS. Doing so makes it harder for bad actors to see what you’re viewing online. On top of that, consider using a private browser to help keep your history secret and protect you from online trackers.
If you’re traveling with particularly sensitive data, store it on a thumb drive or other removable device you can destroy after using it. Also, as your parents always said, don’t accept thumb drives from strangers. You have no idea what kind of malware might be stored on them.
As a general rule—though destination dependent—assume foreign governments and other bad actors will actively monitor your presence online. Avoid logging on to secure accounts whenever possible and remain aware of any local laws regarding encryption and online behavior.