Digital security when traveling: 10 must-do tips
Digital security is hard enough to maintain at home. Once you add in the variables of traveling, protecting your digital world becomes even more challenging. Public Wi-Fi networks, crowded hotel and airport lobbies, popular shopping areas, favorite eateries and bank ATMs are some spots viewed as target-rich environments for criminals seeking to abscond with your personal data – important passwords, bank accounts, and even your identity.
Recently, within minutes of entering an airport lounge in Chengdu, China, awaiting our next flight to Kunming, I logged into the lounge Wi-Fi and was immediately alerted via software on my computer that someone had already accessed my Spotify password. My password was quickly changed and the attack thwarted, but it was a quick reminder to even a veteran traveler: Always remain vigilant and use every tool available to keep your digital life safe from prying eyes and nefarious intentions.
Here are 10 tips to help ensure your digital security when traveling:
- Assume all public Wi-Fi is unsafe. It is not hard for any hacker to access even password-protected Wi-Fi by breaking into the connection or spoofing a legitimate network with a fake one you unwittingly log into. If a hacker can view your Wi-Fi connection, he or she can easily steal your passwords, usernames, and all transmitted data. They can also inject malware into your computer that will continue to eavesdrop on your connections once you get home. If a Wi-Fi network ever asks you to install software or a plugin before using it, hit the disconnect button immediately. This is a well-known scam that simply uploads malware onto your computer, assisted by yourself.
- Install and always use a VPN (virtual private network) on every digital device you own. Basically, once the VPN software is installed on your computer and all of your devices – smartphones and tablets – it routes your data in an encrypted format through another server that makes it look as if you are directly connected to that network, not the public Wi-Fi network you may be using. This effectively foils criminal minds intent on stealing your data. A VPN can also allow you to fully access the web in countries where you might otherwise be prevented from doing so – China, for example – by making it look as if you are somewhere else in the world. We happily accessed every corner of the web from China while the government agency censors thought we were hanging out in Norway or Italy.
- Always use a password manager. Simple-stupid passwords (e.g. “password” or “12345”), saved passwords in browsers, repetitive passwords (same for every site you access), passwords containing key personal data (your street address or a child’s name) are examples that make hackers salivate when seeking to steal digital information. A password manager puts all of your digital keys (passwords and usernames) behind a very secure wall and inside an encrypted vault. You simply have to remember one very strong password to open that manager and it will do the rest for you – for example, logging you in securely without prying eyes watching, changing your passwords if an account breach is detected or if a website requires it occasionally, and remembering notes or answers to “secret” questions. Some password managers, like Dashlane, also allow you to designate an emergency contact to have access to select data with your permission. Dashlane and NordPass are but a few of the top-rated password managers available.
- Use two-factor authentication for all your important web-based services. That means for bank accounts, social media, email and any other service you use. If two-factor authentication is offered, enable it. Yes, it’s mildly inconvenient, but in the event someone does manage to sneak off with your password, the criminal will need a second-level security code in order to log in. This is sent to you via text or generated using special software installed on your smartphone.
- Always use a PIN code for your computers and devices. We know it’s a pain, but this is a simple deterrent to thwart opportunistic criminals. On your laptop, make your password a very strong one and set your system to require a password to log back in after short idle times. For your tablets or smartphones, if your device supports more than four characters, opt for this and make your password as strong as possible. Newer versions of both iPhone and iPad feature fingerprint scanners for Touch ID login or face ID, which is the most digitally secure.
You may also want to read Travel security gear we rely on anywhere we go
- Enable and use encryption on all of your devices for maximum digital security. If someone makes off with your computer or tablet or smartphone, ensure your data will remain protected behind a strong password. If you are on a Mac, you will use FireVault. Windows computers use BitLocker. Apple tablets and phones using iOS 8 or higher are encrypted by default. If you are using an Android device, go to “Settings” then “Security” then “Encrypt Device.”
- Use antivirus software to help keep bad digital bugs at bay when you are traveling. To ensure full digital security, also use your antivirus software to perform a deep sweep and clean of your computer once you return home to check for spyware, malware and viruses you may have inadvertently picked up.
- If you are not at any time using Bluetooth or your wireless connection on your smartphones, tablets and laptops, disable them. Simply put the device in airplane mode, for example, or even make a habit of turning off these connections unless you need them. This is just another way to make it harder for criminals to do a snatch-and-grab in your digital world when you might not be aware.
You may also want to read Travel safety – Understanding State Department travel advisories
- Use your mobile phone in its tethering “Hot Spot” mode to surf the web on your computer or tablet, says digital expert Shaun Murphy. If you have unlimited and fast data connection for your phone, this is a much more secure and effective way to connect to the Internet than using public Wi-Fi. Keep in mind when traveling internationally, your speed may be throttled or data connections may be VERY expensive. Do check your mobile phone plan and data allowances before you connect, and consider opting in to an international plan prior to your departure for the period you will be gone.
Are you prepared for travel emergencies? You will want to read Medical emergencies while traveling – essential travel advice
- Keep your devices and computer updated. This may seem obvious, but on a recent trip abroad, when I was helping a tour leader with an IT problem, I was stunned to see he had not updated his operating system or various applications in months! And he really did know better. Not updating software opens your device to security holes that become veritable welcome mats to hackers seeking access to your digital world.