Without a doubt, international travelers face a high risk of cybersecurity breaches. If you travel for work, you'll likely have to do business on more than one device, including laptops and smartphones. If your trip is for pleasure, you might use a phone or tablet to share special moments and keep in touch with folks back home. The information on your computer or mobile device is sensitive, and you don't want it to fall into the hands of the wrong person.
Cybercriminals are located all around the world. These tech-savvy pirates look for email addresses, social media profiles, passwords, financial data, stored files and other personal information that they can use against individuals and giant corporations alike. Some countries are more dangerous for data security than others; if you're visiting a country with civil unrest or which has sizable groups that don't look fondly on foreigners, you'll want to be extra careful about protecting your data.
The consequences of a cybersecurity attack are nothing to scoff at. At a minimum, stolen passwords can result in embarrassing communication among friends, clients and coworkers. At worst, hackers can download ransomware that would cost you or your company a substantial amount of money.
Taking precautions for data security and privacy is one of the most important preparations for anyone planning an international trip. To stay safe, be sure to follow these cybersecurity tips while you travel abroad.
Power Down Your Devices Often
You never know who will want access to your personal or business data. Many border control officers, including those with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, have the right to search through digital files — sometimes even without reasonable cause. They can demand passwords, check apps and access your files. That's why it's smart to power down all of your devices when going through security checkpoints.
With your devices switched off, officers and others have less of an opportunity to access sensitive information. You'll also want to install a lock screen on your phone. With features such as longer passcodes or a two-step authentication option on your device, you'll protect yourself from data theft. Combining the habit of powering down your devices with additional lock screen protective measures is one of the most effective ways to ensure your data stays safe while on the road.
Use a Mobile VPN
A virtual private network, or VPN, is a must-have for any international traveler. There are free services as well as paid options that offer more security and other features, but all VPNs protect your privacy while you send and receive information. By encrypting your data and ensuring that your online presence is anonymous, VPNs help prevent data thieves from accessing your digital information.
An added benefit is that a VPN can make it seem as though you are located in or working from another country. This is a valuable tool in countries that restrict access to certain websites. Some sites will not load in different countries, so your online research and file sharing will not be possible without the use of a VPN.
Avoid Public WiFi
Public WiFi networks are unencrypted and unsecured, leaving you vulnerable to data theft. It's surprisingly easy for hackers to intercept data over public WiFi, including your browsing activities, passwords, financial information and transactions. If you're not careful, you can even become a victim of personal identity theft.
If you absolutely must use a public WiFi network, pay careful attention to the network that you select. Criminals often set up rogue hotspots with misleading, seemingly innocuous names. If you use their network, they can steal any information you send while online and use tools to infect your devices with malware. The safest option is to avoid public WiFi altogether and invest in a personal WiFi hotspot.
Use Outlets, Not USB Ports
Another common hacking strategy in airports and other transport hubs is to install a fake USB charging port. It looks like any other charging port, but this USB port is designed to steal your data. Whenever you're running low on battery, use your power cord to connect to a regular electrical outlet. An even better option is to invest in a personal power bank that can charge your device at any point in your travels. If you must use a USB charging port, be sure to power down your device before plugging in.
Limit Virtual Access
On top of keeping your devices tucked away to avoid theft while traveling, you'll also want to limit virtual access. That means downloading any software you might need before traveling to your destination. If you must download software while on the road, it's a good idea to have your system checked out by an IT professional when you return.
When not in use, disable your Bluetooth and WiFi settings. Be sure to switch the WiFi auto-connect function off while abroad; you don't want your phone to automatically connect to an unsecured server. Say no to apps or associates that request you share your location. You might end up sharing your location with someone you'd rather keep far away.
Keep Everything Updated
Finally, before you travel, make sure that your devices are running on the most current operating systems. Update all of your apps, especially anti-virus software and apps that you use for business or financial transactions. Before you travel, consider changing all your passwords with a strong mix of letters, numbers and punctuation. When you return home, you can reset your passwords.
Ray Qin is an entrepreneur, innovator and engineering leader with more than 20 years of experience working in startups in Silicon Valley, with a heavy focus on the mobile data industry. He currently serves as the senior system and software architect for Skyroam, a global WiFi hotspot company.