5 travel security tips for the slightly paranoid

May 22, 2019

Disclaimer: This post is for people who don’t like to be watched or tapped. Is that paranoid?

We do quite a lot to make our homes as comfortable and safe as we want them to be. Some people even choose to work from home to enjoy that comfort all day long. But even telecommuters sometimes travel, trading that comfort — and security — for the chance to visit a new place. At Security Analyst Summit 2019, Marco Preuss and Ariel Jungheit of Kaspersky Lab’s Global Research and Analysis Team gave a talk on protecting your privacy while traveling. Here’s a short recap of this talk, summarized into five travel security tips.

1. Never leave your belongings unattended

Captain Obvious is here to remind you that leaving your backpack unattended in the airport for a minute or two can result in it being physically destroyed by security guards.

It’s not just about airports, though. Keep the things that matter to you (such as your phone, your laptop, and so on) with you, at all times, wherever you go. Yes, take all of your gear when leaving your room in the hotel. No, don’t leave your laptop on the table in the café if you need to go to a restroom. It should go without saying that all your devices need to be password protected, and locked when not in use.

2. Make sure your devices are encrypted

Even if you carry all of your stuff with you all of the time, your devices can still be stolen. Yes, using high quality antitheft backpacks helps, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. And we all know that the information on the device is usually worth significantly more than the device itself, so it’s the information you need to protect the most. That’s why you need to make sure that the entire storage unit in your device is encrypted.

Devices with the latest versions of Android are encrypted by default, and so are iOS devices protected with a passcode or password. Click here to learn how to turn on full disk encryption, aka BitLocker, for Windows. And here to learn how to turn on the same — FileVault — for macOS.

3. Learn how to find bugs and hidden cameras and fool them

Heard any creepy stories about hidden cameras in Airbnbs lately? It’s still happening, and you never know who’ll be the next victim. And if you happen to be a businessperson, a politician, a human rights activist, or a journalist, someone may try to set up hidden microphones, or bugs, in your hotel room or rental apartment to eavesdrop on you.

Fortunately, finding hidden surveillance devices is not that hard. You’ll need a small tool that incorporates a radio frequency scanner, which enables you to find sources emitting electromagnetic waves (which wireless bugs and cameras usually do), and a combination of light-emitting diodes and a red glass to look for hidden cameras.

The latter is possible simply because a camera lens reflects light significantly better than other surfaces do, and that is why using the aforementioned gear you’ll see a bright red dot if you point light from diodes at the camera and look toward it through the red glass. Such devices aren’t awfully expensive, you can find them in online stores for less than $50.

Also, if cameras that use infrared illumination are in the vicinity, you can spot them using your phone; cameras in mobile phones can detect infrared emission (but keep in mind that some phones, for example, iPhones, have too strong an infrared filter in their cameras for this trick).

These techniques won’t find hidden wired microphones, but at least you can easily fool them using the sound of water running from the tap or just some noise that can be produced using services such as Noisli. Background noise nearly ruins all recordings, making it safe (most likely) to communicate in your room.

4. Know how to spot a dual-view mirror

Remember those two-way mirrors from interrogation rooms in the movies? A person inside the room sees it as a mirror, but people on the other side see it as a window looking into the room. They’re rare, though. Outside of real interrogation rooms, they exist mostly in detective movies. However, they do exist, and if you unexpectedly find yourself deep in the plot of a spy movie in real life, now you’ll know how to protect yourself from such mirror tricks.

Usually it’s rather easy: Place a finger on the surface of the mirror, and if there is a gap between the finger and its reflection, it’s a normal mirror, with a layer of glass above the reflective surface. If there is no gap, the mirror may be a two-way one — and there might be someone on the other side looking at you or recording you. Or it might be a normal mirror that has no no glass above the reflective surface — such mirrors do exist (for example, in your car).

But it’s better to be safe than sorry, so you might not want to get undressed in front of such mirror. The fix isn’t technical at all — you can just cover the mirror with some cloth, or at least avoid working with sensitive information in front of it.

5. Use wired mouse and keyboard

You already know it’s a mistake to use the publicly accessible PC in the hotel lobby, or one belonging to your host. You probably brought your own laptop with you, anyway. But if you use an external keyboard or mouse, you should also bring a trusted wired version with you; known attacks allow another person either to sniff what you type or click using wireless peripherals or to inject clicks — even if the communication between your peripherals and the computer is encrypted.

You probably don’t travel with a wireless keyboard, but remember to leave your wireless mouse at home as well. The touchpad in your laptop will do, and if you’re not comfortable with it, use a good ol’ wired mouse.

Some of the precautions and actions described in this post are more obvious than others, but they’re all important. I still quite frequently stumble upon people not following the most obvious security best practices (and it takes some effort on my part not to play a joke on them with their unsecured and unattended laptops). So, in my opinion, it’s better to repeat the basics sometimes; they don’t seem to be so obvious to everyone. Travel safe!