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Traveling is one of the most important things in life, be it for leisure or for business. When preparing for a trip in the past, the essentials to pack included clothes, toiletries (a toothbrush, lotion, etc.) and cash in the appropriate currency. Nowadays, though, we have to bring along our smartphones, tablets, and laptops.
Most times, you don’t have a choice and you need one or more devices to get work done or to entertain yourself while on the road. However, various online threats usually accompany the accessibility and comfort that comes with accessing the Internet on the go.
In this article, we take a look at some of these risks you face while accessing the Internet during your travels and steps you can take to protect yourself.
1. Public Wi-Fi
At the top of the list of online security hazards is Wi-Fi, especially unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots. Few can resist the temptation to use free Internet to check their social media, finish a project, or stream a movie or their favorite TV show. However, most people don’t realize that public Wi-Fi hotspots are rife with hackers, eavesdroppers and honeypots.
When you connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, all your online traffic is visible to whoever is interested in accessing it. That includes your personal identifiable information (e.g., email address), social media login details, banking details, etc. Hackers can easily steal your identity and use it for online criminal activity.
One solution is avoiding public Wi-Fi hotspots altogether. However, if you must use them, protect yourself using a VPN, which encrypts your traffic and keeps no logs of online activity that can be traced back to you.
2. Fake Duplicate Wi-Fi Hotspots
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself that you’re safe because you only limit your use of public Wi-Fi to hotspots that you know to be safe. This is, however, not an effective precaution because you can be lured into using phony duplicate Wi-Fi hotspots which are aimed at stealing your personal information.
For example, consider this scenario. You visit a hotel that you’ve visited so many times before that all your devices remember all the Wi-Fi hotspots in the hotel and connect to them automatically. A few hours after connecting to one of them, you get warnings from your Gmail and social media accounts that someone attempted to access your accounts.
What happened? Your smartphone, tablet or laptop connected to a duplicate access point created by software used to mimic the Wi-Fi networks saved on your devices. Pineapple, one such software, scans the 2.4GHz band spectrum searching for your preferred network and duplicates them.
Once you connect to the phony network, all your outbound traffic is accessible to the owner of the network, who certainly has no good intentions. To mitigate this risk, forget all the stored networks on your device. The risk that the auto-connect feature exposes you to is not worth the convenience. You’re better off manually connecting every time.
3. Using Public Computers
Public computers also pose a great online risk. Fortunately, the use of public computers isn’t as common as it was in the past. It is, however, important to know the precautions that you must take in the event that you use one while traveling.
It’s difficult to determine what software is on a public computer. Threats include anything from relatively harmless malware to more dangerous threats such as phishing and keylogger software. It is, therefore, imperative that you never log into your online accounts using a public computer.
Accessing the Internet in and of itself is not a problem, provided your sessions are limited to information such as transport schedules and working hours that are not connected to your identity. If you really need to use a computer and a public computer is the only device available, use a VPN to ensure that the computer will not automatically store all your data.
A VPN uses powerful encryption to make your traffic virtually impossible to decipher and makes your connection secure. Needless to say, you should already have a VPN subscription by the time you’re using a public computer. Subscribing to a service by using a possibly infected computer beats the point of using a VPN.
4. Accessing Restricted Content
When traveling, you probably want to access your usual websites and services. However, many popular services—such as Netflix—are only available in certain countries. Attempting to access restricted content can expose your device to some indirect danger if you use unofficial and questionable websites to access it.
People searching for “free” and “fast” workarounds for accessing restricted content may fall prey to online scams that may wreak havoc in the case that their devices are infected by malware. It is for this reason that you need to take a proactive approach and use a VPN when using services and websites that unblock Geo-restricted content.
5. Agents at the Border
In this case, you’re main concern is your online privacy and not hackers and malware. While this may sound far-fetched to some, frequent travelers know all too well how a security checkpoint can turn the tide of a trip.
Following the numerous cyberattacks in recent years and the fact that most travelers usually carry a smartphone with them, border patrol is authorized to conduct an arbitrary check on electronic devices carried by travelers.
For example, US agents at the border have the right to demand your passwords and data on your social media activity thanks to the “border exemption” that prevents you from invoking your 4th amendment right. The agents can, therefore, carry out an “unreasonable search” on your device. This can happen at any time, and when it does, all your private data on your devices will be breached and your trip will likely be ruined.
People in the UK aren’t even covered by “reasonable search.” Agents at the border can obtain and hold on to your data for as long as they deem it necessary.
Once you find yourself in such a situation, your trip will be at the mercy of the border agent who’s in charge, and some may be hard on you for no apparent reason. Refusing to comply is not an option as you may end up detained or even banned from the country in question. Attempting to have as little sensitive information as possible on your device may not be practical.
Even though a VPN would encrypt your traffic, it may not be helpful in the event that you’re asked for your login credentials.
What to Look for in a VPN Service
Having listed the online threats you face when accessing the Internet during your travels and outlining the reasons for using a VPN to protect yourself, here are the most important considerations to make when deciding which VPN provider to use.
- The country in which the VPN service is based. You want a VPN service that is based in a country where government authorities and law firms cannot easily compel VPN providers to hand over users’ data. Ideally, the provider shouldn’t be located in a country that belongs to the Five Eyes alliance, a group of countries that collaboratively spy on each other’s citizens.
- No-logs policy. To find out the level of privacy that you will enjoy with a given VPN provider, check the logging policy. Well-established providers don’t keep logs of sensitive user data and don’t hold on to the logs they do record for long periods. This way, you can be sure that government authorities and other interested parties cannot access your data.
- Supports for all major device platforms. You probably use multiple devices: smartphone, tablet, desktop. So you want a VPN that has clients for iOS, Android, Windows and Mac. Additionally, it should offer multiple simultaneous connections.
- A large network server. Numerous servers usually improve the likelihood of finding a stable connection. It also improves the speed if you can connect with a server that is close to you.
- Protective measures. Give preference to VPNs that offer a wide variety of security features such as DNS leak protection and a kill switch. With these features, you need not worry about your IP address leaking in case your VPN connection drops.
There are numerous direct and indirect risks that you face when accessing the Internet while traveling. Be aware of the risks in the first step to ensure your safety. The next step is taking security measures, the most effective of which is using a VPN to encrypt your online data, and keep your browsing activities private.