Advice issued by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre emphasises the need for everyone to take action to protect our sensitive data. This is especially important when travelling. Past warnings from the FBI and other security agencies show that networks that one might assume to be safe can be nothing of the kind. In hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, airports, stations, and other public spaces, insecure networks can put our devices at risk of viruses and data loss.

While many data security experts consider hotel connections to be particularly precarious, the reality is that from the perspective of data security, all travel involves some element of risk to data due to the movement outside a secured home or office network and the likely use of public wi-fi networks.

So what can we do to protect ourselves? We’ve prepared this travel checklist comprising practical steps to protect our computers, tablets, phones and personal data before, during and after travel.

Technology Tips for Safe Travel - stay safe on airport wifi and more

Get Ready for Travel

Prepare your devices

Our first tip is for business travellers but can apply to anyone taking a laptop on a trip.

Your main work or personal laptop will contain much personal and commercial data that you want to keep private. Consider travelling light, taking a laptop that’s reserved purely for business travel. This should be virus scanned prior to departure and be loaded with only the minimum software you need to do your work.

Use cloud storage services to secure valuable data rather than storing files on the laptop.

Business and leisure travellers may also want to consider carrying a cheap phone for daily use when at your destination.

Safe travel checklist

All travellers should consider following these preparatory steps, on all devices, before departure:

  • Delete unnecessary personal data
  • Clear your browsing history / browser cache
  • If possible, do not store passwords on the device but instead use a secure password manager
  • Use strong passwords for all devices, accounts and services
  • Make backups of any important data that you must take with you. Use a secure data backup service to keep files safe.
  • Disable all remote connectivity, including wi-fi, Bluetooth and NFC

Watch out for travel scam websites

With the advent of COVID-19 and Brexit on top of existing requirements to provide advance passenger information, e.g. the US ESTA, scam websites have proliferated.

You may have to fill in a passenger locator form or provide personal information about COVID1-19 vaccination status prior to travel. In this event, always check that you are using the official governmental website for the country to which you are travelling. The UK government’s foreign travel advice contains links to the official websites for most destinations. Refer to this list and do not enter personal information if you are unsure about a website’s authenticity.

Note too that you don’t need to use a third-party paid service to apply for an ESTA to enter the USA. Always apply directly using the official ESTA application website.

While on your trip

Use a VPN

Consider using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to encrypt and secure your internet communications. A VPN will encrypt data sent between your device before it is sent to websites and vice versa. This can keep your sensitive data safe, even on public networks.

As VPN users can set their IP address to a location to anywhere in include access to blocked content (e.g. YouTube or Netflix videos blocked by region) or cheaper airfares and hotel rates. This is because many airlines and hotels offer different rates to different international markets. For these reasons as well as the enhanced security and privacy, many regular travellers therefore consider a VPN service an essential part of their travel arsenal.

For personal travellers, there are many affordable VPN services, which often come with extra features such as malware scanners, ad blockers, password managers and cloud storage. For business travellers, your workplace may offer a VPN as part of its own network security policy.

Tips to stay safe when travelling

While travelling, try to follow these steps to stay safe.

  • Do not use public computers (e.g. in internet cafés or hotel lobbies) to send personal data or card details

  • Use a VPN when using your device on public networks
  • Switch off all remote connectivity when not in use
  • Shield your phone or computer from view when working with personal data in public spaces
  • Always keep your device in your possession while travelling. If you must leave it in a hotel, store it in your room safe
  • Do not allow other people to use your device
  • Do not allow others to connect a device (e.g. storage, a phone) to your device
  • Do not use any network that requires additional third-party software to be downloaded to enable access
  • Regularly scan your device for viruses or malware

After you return from travel

On return, it is sensible to proceed as though your laptop or device may have been compromised or infected. Thoroughly scan your computer and other devices for spyware, malware, and viruses before connecting to your home or office networks. Scan any software, devices or extra storage you may have acquired during travel before use. Check all your accounts for unusual activity and consider changing any passwords that you may have used while travelling.

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