While many people tend to worry about pickpocketing, contracting rare diseases or getting lost when traveling abroad, Julia DiPietrantonio’s main concern was cybersecurity. Just two weeks before flying to Mexico for spring break, the Westchester, New York resident’s Facebook account, Gmail server and iPhone were all hacked, leading to her current cybersecurity anxiety.
“We really do need to be aware of basic cyber security protection,” said Marisa Kwiatkowski, investigative reporter for the Indianapolis Star during a recent panel of four experts on cybersecurity.
While smartphones have become more technologically sophisticated, and the Internet continues to complexify, security has become a growing concern among Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, about 49 percent of the population reported feeling less secure than they did five years ago. Moreover, 64 percent of Americans have personally dealt with a major data breach, with relatively large shares of the public lacking trust in key institutions – especially the government and social media – to protect their personal information.
Identity fraud has increased as an issue among those who use the same mobile devices for business and personal matters alike, said another panelist, Anthony Fargo, PhD and director of Indiana University’s Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies.
Experts on the panel have highlighted three simple steps you should take toward protecting your personal information and ensuring security on your mobile devices before leaving the U.S.
Send important documents through postal services
In today’s media age, the safest way to send secure information is by U.S. mail, said Kwiatkowski, “Not digital at all. It’s snail mail.” It’s also easy to swipe a credit card, but Kwiatkowski recommends using cash while traveling. Ditch your Kindle and read paperback books instead as Kindle is digital lending, according to Kwiatkowski. However, a more prominent threat affecting a broader range of people is their email server.
Experts agree that email is not secure, and urge those traveling not to use it for anything requiring real security. “Email is like a postcard: anybody, any system that touches it, can read it,” said Susan Sons, senior systems analyst for the IU Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research.
Install Apps for instant messaging
“If you’re a human with a smartphone, do this: install Signal from Open Whisper Systems,” said Sons. The free app acts as a private messenger and is an easy alternative to any unreliable social networks. “It will give a tremendous amount of protection to the content of your conversations,” said Sons.
“For instant messaging, it is recommended to install Whatsapp and ensure it is configured correctly,” said Nate Cardozo, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which focuses on cybersecurity. He recommends contacting tech experts to ensure correct configuration within the app’s settings, but it may be worth your time. He argues that it serves as a simpler, efficient alternative to Signal. “ With 1.3 Billion people using Whatsapp, it serves as a pretty good built-in smokescreen,” said Cardozo.
Watch where you wifi
In addition to using protective apps, avoid using wifi at major chains like Starbucks, said Scott Shackelford, a senior fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research as well as a Research Fellow at Harvard. During a panel on cybersecurity overseas, he said that due to the large number of people frequenting these locations, the public internet is being shared among a broader population. “Unplug from public internet as often as possible,” said Shackelford. He suggests using air-gapped computers, offered in many public spaces like libraries, as they are not directly connected to the internet. Just remember to logout afterward.
Power off while crossing borders
“Every time you cross a border, make sure your devices are powered all the way down,” said Cardozo.
There is no way of knowing that your devices are secure and will be free from hackers unless you take this step, especially while in-flight, which you are already encouraged to do by airline staff, said Kwiatkowski. In China, there have been cases where messages get lost in cyberspace and travelers are simply put out of touch with their families, she said. Meanwhile, messages are marked as ‘sent’ on the traveler’s end, falsely affirming that they are simply not receiving a response. “The number of [services] that you should be protecting when crossing borders is greater than the number of people in this room,” said Kwiatkowski during the heavily attended cybersecurity panel.
Cybersecurity now, piece of mind later
Taking a few minutes to complete simple tasks like writing a postcard, powering down and installing protective apps can relieve any anxious traveler from cybersecurity concerns before heading overseas. By following expert tips, you’ll be equipped to take on the next international trip with little concern for security, as long as you remember to lock the front door behind you.