When you travel, there's no doubt that you'll end up using random WiFi connections in cafes and hotels around the world. Unfortunately, they're often not as secure as you think. These tools and tricks will help ensure your sensitive data stays safe.
There's an old, clichéd saying that I'm sure you've heard before: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” Not only is it remarkably cheesy, it's totally impossible. In this day and age, we all leave more than footprints.
Wherever we travel, we leave a trace. We leave a piece of ourselves.
It could be something small, like leaving your favorite shirt in a hostel dorm, where it's inherited by a fellow traveler and becomes the centerpiece of another four months of travel selfies. Or it could be something more profound, like the friendship you shared with a local; perhaps a junior monk at a Nepalese monastery, a Fijian seafood chef, or the family you met on an overnight train journey.
It could also be something that leaves you much more vulnerable.
How Wide Does Your Digital Footprint Spread?
Digital footprint. Identity theft. They’re buzzwords surrounded by (what seems like) hype, but in all honesty, they do mean something. I have a friend whose identity gets stolen every year.
I know, you don’t have to tell me. ::rolls eyes::
When you use the internet, you leave traces of your personal information all over the web. Just by visiting a website or submitting a form, you're transmitting small bits of personal information to someone else. Most of the time that information is harmless, used only to help curate our online experience and to make browsing the web a more pleasant and relevant experience.
But when you travel, and when you use unknown WiFi connections around the world, you don't really know how, or to whom, your personal information is being submitted.
And that's the problem.
A couple years ago I checked my computer after a month in Thailand—it had saved over 100 connections in my preferred networks: airports, hostels, cafes, cyber cafes, some place called WOMBATS (can't remember that one!), and something named hound95132. Who knows?
The reality is that all these connections aren't 100% secure. As a former IT technician, I can tell you that some wireless encryptions are very easily hacked, which means the risk is magnified even further when you're traveling in developing countries.
Every time you use a new connection, you're opening yourself up to threats and making sensitive information about yourself available.
The Challenge of Cybersecurity When Traveling
When you’re traveling, you need the internet. You don’t need to post a hundred photos of your trip on social media, but you do need to do research, stay in touch with friends and family, get a visa, read my blog, and research cheap flights and accommodation (see what I did there?).
When you're on a small Southeast Asian island, you'll take any connection you can get. Is it realistic to visit five Thai cafes before finding one with a suitably secure connection, just so you can double check your flight times?
In reality, you don't have a choice of internet connection. If anything, you just want the one that’s fast.
At home, we use trusted networks. On the road, we’re forced to trust the unknown (sometimes, good—in this case, bad). If it’s a bizarre street food or an unusual local custom, I’m all for it, but when it’s my credit card information? Yeah, no.
Blink if you’ve ever entered your credit card information in a coffee shop (I saw that!).
Best Practices for Cybersecurity On the Road
You know that song by Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy?”
It’s a well-meaning travel mantra, too. Don’t worry, be happy…until your credit card is being used to purchase diamonds from Nigeria, or someone on the other side of the world is threatening to spam your entire address book with naked photos of you for ransom. No word of a lie, that happened to my other friend (sorry, Nic).
So, what do we do about it?
Basic Browser Security
Honestly, this is something that should be taught at school. And hey, maybe it is—it's been a while since I was there! All this is free and easy to implement.
- Passwords – Make sure you use a variety of smart and strong passwords (not qwerty1234). Don't save passwords in your browser and definitely don't save them on a public computer in an internet cafe. Turn certain letters into numbers if you can—if your password is sailboats1985, try something like [email protected]! instead.
- Check the Security of a Connection – When using any site that requires a password (especially online banking), double check to make sure you have a secure connection. You’ll usually see a little green padlock in the address bar. To go a step further, consider installing a program like Trusteer Rapport a free fraud protection program from IBM that protects your online banking.
- Browser Choice – Chrome and Firefox are the two best browsers and both have better inherent protection that Safari or Internet Explorer (now Microsoft Edge).
- Browsing Incognito – If you don’t want your browser to save a record of what you visit and download, browse in Incognito mode (on Google Chrome; Private on Firefox).
- Wiping Cookies – Cookies are little text documents from every website you visit (even this one) that store bits of information on your machine. Usually, the information is harmless (yes, relax—I'm not stealing your information), but sometimes they can propose a serious risk. Make sure you wipe them regularly from your browser settings.
- Enter Your Own Important URLs – Don't Google your bank's web address or follow email links to sites where passwords need to be entered. Type them straight into the address bar instead. That way you know the site is legit.
- Look for the .com before the first forward slash – Similarly, you should always manually parse URLs to make sure you’re actually on the website you think you’re on. Hackers often create websites with complex web addresses that look legitimate but aren’t.
Install Bitdefender BOX
Bitdefender BOX is a comprehensive security suite for your home network. It's a little white box that sits next to your router and scans all incoming and outgoing connections for malware, viruses, and phishing attempts on all of your devices.
BOX monitors every network request, scanning and blocking different categories of online attacks before they ever reach your device. It’s like an antivirus solution for your entire home network. I tried to access the fake PayPal site above and it wouldn't even let me!
Since I travel too much to have my own apartment with a private internet connection, I installed BOX at my sister's place, and now she gets protection at home, and I get protection while I'm away traveling! Here's how:
Private Line is an exclusive BOX feature which gives you the same awarded protection on all your devices, anywhere in the world. Your connection status goes from “Protected Home” to “Protected Away,” meaning no matter where you travel, and no matter what network you’re on, you’ve got a scanned, secure connection to the web.
It does this by installing a security profile on your device (fancy words that mean it runs in the background), which routes your traffic through their super-fast servers, scans it, and then delivers the data to your device. Because they have servers all over the world, you never notice a speed decrease. In other words, it's a scanned VPN connection.
(For the techies out there, I clocked 55mbps download and 60mbps upload at a residence in Washington, DC). That's fast.
The mobile BOX app also lets you monitor your network from wherever you are and gives you a cohesive look at what’s happening on your network. You can even push security updates to your home devices from the opposite side of the globe! I like that.
Before I left to travel six years ago, I was an IT technician, and Bitdefender was a trusted part of our antivirus arsenal. I'm excited to partner with them on this article and I'm excited to see that they're still the innovative security company they've always been.
At $199 (currently on sale for $129), Bitdefender BOX is a sound investment—think of it as a piece of your travel insurance. Want to win one? Scroll down to the bottom for more information on how (it's really easy)!
Keeping passwords safe is essential, and keeping tracking of them is even harder. Secure passwords are often very complex, which makes them difficult to remember. Enter Dashlane, a password manager for your devices (yes, all of them), that remembers your passwords so you don’t have to.
It also securely stores your credit card information and auto-fills online order forms. This way you don’t have to enter your 16-digits every single time you make a purchase.
Combined with basic browser security, and even the Bitdefender BOX, your passwords will always be safe and secure.
If you use the same password for everything, that’s okay, because Dashlane can automatically change your password to something more secure for more than 500 different sites.
Backing up data is another essential consideration to keep your data safe when on the road. Dropbox and Google Drive provide cloud space to back all important documents but both have storage limitations. They’re also unable to routinely and automatically backup your entire machine.
Backblaze is an important part of my data security suite while on the road. It keeps your whole machine (and any removable devices) backed up in the cloud, available for recovery whenever and wherever you need it. You can download a backup, or they’ll mail you a flash drive.
Plus, their smartphone app means you have access to your backed up files even when you’re not at your machine!
Cybersecurity is Even More Important When You Get Home
My whole point here is that, when it comes to cyber security, it’s important to take a holistic approach. You need to create a secure ecosystem for your data—it’s the wild west out there, and you will be taken advantage of if you let them.
From the start of your trip all the way until the end, you are sharing personal information about yourself and taking a lot of uncalculated risks with some of the most important pieces of your life.
And if your details are dotted across the globe, securing your home system becomes even more of a challenge. One stolen password could complete a jigsaw puzzle for someone who poses a security threat.
Often, it's only when I get home that I realize what I've left behind: the friendships, the clothes, a half-naked Polaroid photo on a hostel notice board…
As travelers, we aren't supported by traditional systems. For many years, even technology has lagged behind for assisting people on the road. There are gray areas and many travelers are hand-picking solutions to fit ever-changing needs.
With new technologies come a shift in the paradigm. It’s up to us, however, to implement them.
This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Bitdefender. The opinions and text are all my own.