A Tourist’s Guide to Privacy: Protect Your Information When Crossing Borders
Airplanes, trains and high-powered vehicles have made border-hopping easy to do for those bitten by the travel bug. Smartphones, portable laptops, external hard drives and wireless internet have made it simple to take your most personal information with you wherever you go. Unfortunately, this powerful pocket technology also makes it necessary for you to guard your information like a hawk from identity theft, unauthorized transactions and data smugglers. Find out how below:
- Make it easy for yourself, your travel companions, and the customs officials who deal with you by bringing as little sensitive data, personal information and paperwork as possible. Be sure to bring the essentials that you know you will need: your passport, visa if applicable, and any pertinent medical or health insurance-related documents you may need, such as proof of an immunization or prescription medication. Leave everything else at home. Your social security card, birth certificate and tax forms will all be much better off safely tucked in the top drawer of your home office bureau, rather than traveling around the world at risk of disappearing. The key to protecting your information is simple – only travel with the absolute essentials, and backup, backup, backup. Keep commonsense in mind: if you don’t have it, you won’t be able to lose it, have it stolen, or have it floating around in a foreign country without your control. App resources like Protect My ID from Experian can help you decide what to take with you and what to leave at home. Before you depart, don’t forget to make copies of all your important documents that you are traveling with, or scan images of them into your personal computer. This includes items like passports, driver’s licenses, credit cards and proof of insurance. This way, there will be a permanent backup for your most private data.
- Take steps well before you embark on your journey to make sure that your physical possessions are buckled in securely for the ride ahead. Prior to travel, call your credit or debit card companies and alert them to the fact that you will be making charges from another country. Otherwise you may be subject to a freeze on your account while the credit company investigates an unusual charge, which will put you in a tough position as a tourist. Be aware of the local currency, exchange rate, and money change options in your destination country, and make sure to have some traveler’s checks on hand for emergencies. Go through these steps with your laptop before you pack it into your carry-on luggage, and you will be able to have peace of mind as you’re going through security, checking into your hotel and taking your computer out in a foreign country.
- Keep your computer – and your hands – to yourself. Certain countries have the right to seize or quarantine a traveler’s laptop that they suspect, for any number of reasons, contains data that they want or that they don’t want in their country. Be aware of what you’re bringing in to a country, being especially sensitive to areas like the Middle East, East Asia or Eastern Europe, which are notoriously volatile and zealous when it comes to suspect information. Even the US has declared that it has a right to seize laptops, and “Analyze the information transported by any individual attempting to enter, reenter, depart, pass through, or reside in the United States,” and remain in control of the computer for an indefinite period. Do your best to prevent this from happening by getting rid of all but the files you will need on your trip, keeping a backup of your hard drive at home, and encrypting your data.
- Use a computer program, app or software to secure your data before you travel with a laptop. These days, travelers for business or pleasure know that exposing yourself to foreign culture can also pose a risk for exposing your data to hackers, investigators or white collar criminals who are on the prowl for personal information that they can use to their advantage. The FBI recently issued a warning to travelers who may be tempted to download software updates over hotel WIFI connections. They caution that hackers have been found using recurring upgrade scams to remotely install viruses or malware onto tourist’s laptops using secure internet access at even five-star hotels. Follow Forbes tips for keeping your computer safe while you travel by installing antivirus software from industry leaders such as ESET or McAfee, and only trusting WPA2 wireless connections. Both hardware and software options are available to encrypt, code, and otherwise hide your data so well that even you might not be able to find it again.
- Passports are no longer just innocent pieces of paper stamped with old-fashioned idyllic depictions of foreign countries in fading ink. In the last decade, the average passport has become a high-tech tool, tracking device, information recorder and scan-able data hub. The US electronic passport, for instance, contains an integrated circuit computer chip embedded with your most personal information and head shot. Thankfully, the purpose of the chip is to prevent identity theft and personal crime. But what if your data is “skimmed” or “eavesdropped” from the passport by a sly tech-savvy criminal? The Department of State has luckily taken several steps against this nasty phenomenon occurring, including encrypting your data and making it unalterable. The biometric properties of these modern passports make identity theft virtually impossible, as when crossing borders they electronically match your physical characteristics with those from the picture in your passport. Even in the worst case scenario of losing your passport, it is highly unlikely that someone else would be able to do anything sneaky with it, thanks to this new technology.
- Be choosy when it comes to a place to rest your head…and your luggage. The difference between a five-star hotel and a two-star can make all the difference in the world when it comes to being confident that your gear will be stored safely and soundly during your trip. “It’s a fact that more serious crime occurs at budget hotels than at major, expensive hotels,” says Peter Greenberg of the LA Times. While we now know that private guest information is not stored on room key cards, we do know that according to security researcher Cody Brocious, hotel locks are not as safe as you might think. In fact, he claims they are “stupidly simple” to open with just about anything. Take advantage of the front desk lockbox as your personal safe-zone during your trip, and keep your valuables in it any time they are not actively in use. Beware of over-the-phone scams, such as the infamous swindler who calls your hotel phone late at night to ask you to reconfirm your credit card information as they had a problem at the front desk. Deal with financial or identity issues in person only, and only with qualified authorities.
- Once you’re there, secure your stuff before you do anything else. Don’t reach for those minibar snacks, remote control or hot tub knob before you ensure that your valuables are in the best place for them. For most hotels, this place will be the safe. Bring your valuables to the lobby and have a hotel official lock them in a private safe where they cannot be tampered with. Any smaller or less important items that you just need to have in your room with you should stay in your locked luggage, or in a theft-proof, slash-proof bag secured to a piece of stable furniture, as Hotel Chatter suggests. Don’t scatter important devices like flash drives or folders around the room or stick them in a drawer only to forget about them. This puts you at risk for theft, damage or loss at the hands of an over-enthusiastic housekeeper.
- Travel intelligently – don’t lose your head as fast as you lose your spare change at the local outdoor market. Keep your passport close at hand. An organized travel carrier that loops around your neck and contains a clear window to hold your passport, other form of identification, credit card, emergency cash and/or traveler’s check is invaluable. These carriers can be situated under clothing, so your most irreplaceable documents are hidden from view and accessible only by you. For ladies, there are Rack Traps, special hidden bra-compartments specifically designed for carrying cash and credit cards. Be cognizant of hidden fees, currency change charges and country-specific quirks when traveling with your credit card.
- Travel smart – keep your home country in the loop of your whereabouts. American citizens can utilize the free-of-charge Smart Travelers Enrollment Program (STEP) to alert the US of their travel plans, location and rough itinerary before they leave the country. In the case of a security breach, emergency or disaster, the Department of State will assist you through the embassy or consulate wherever you are. Learn how to stay abreast of travel warning and advisories so that you and your information will not be put in jeopardy should a situation arise.
- Secure your person before you secure your personal belongings. Remember that no matter how valuable that iPad or the contents of that priceless wallet, the value of your own human body trumps it. In the unlikely event that you are faced with a physical threat, as long as you remain unscathed the information or cash that you’re trying to protect can always be righted somehow. Consider take a self-defense course before you travel abroad so that you feel prepared with an appropriate response if something were to happen. There are many East-Asian martial arts defense classes available, as well as basic personal protection training sessions. Check out Antor.org‘s guide to self-defense for travelers for more information.