From Sochi with Love: A Reminder to Practice Digital Hygiene When Traveling

The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics may well prove to be the most watched games of all time; in more ways than one.

Ever since the terrorist attack at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, host nations have routinely raised the security bar, beginning with wiretaps, around-the-clock surveillance of activist organizations, and a stepped up anti-terrorist presence. In the effort to secure this year’s winter games, the security measures will reportedly include full-on electronic surveillance, drones and even submarines.

Given recent terrorist attacks and verbal threats, the Russian government has come out quite publicly and directly in stating that its security forces will monitor any and all digital communications to ensure the safety and success of this month’s Olympic games. This means that anyone connecting to the internet or using a mobile phone will be subject to government surveillance – that means everyone, at scale, without exception. Period.

This Winter Games at the Black Sea resort town of Sochi will benefit from a $50 billion infrastructure improvement project which promises to significantly enhance wireless and computer communications for all, including visitors and participants. But Russian security forces have also reportedly been installing a surveillance system code-named SORM which taps into the infrastructure to monitor those communications. The system will reportedly employ deep packet inspection technology to enable both interception and filtering of digital traffic, according to researchers.

While the Russian government’s digital communications surveillance seeks to protect those attending the Sochi Olympic Games, these circumstances should remind us to take “digital hygiene” precautions when we travel to places where surveillance is less well-intentioned, and certainly undeclared.

Here are some tips I usually offer when I am asked:

  1. Take “burn” laptops, tablets and smartphones that are “clean” (free of substantial amounts of information) and are disposable when the trip is concluded
  2. Remove your battery from your devices even if they’re “off” during important conversations
  3. Wait an hour after landing at the airport before turning on your smart phone, turn off your phone an hour before your return
  4. Lock any device with a password
  5. Update the owner information to just a phone number
  6. Turning off Bluetooth is an *Absolute Must*, and adjust your near field communications (NFC) settings
  7. Enable data storage encryption
  8. Don’t open attachments from or link to unknown source
  9. Do not download any software during your trip
  10. Watch for “shoulder surfers” – they’re watching for your password and reading your monitor
  11. Use the cellular G3 or G4 network, not the free WiFi in airports, hotels, and coffee shops if possible
  12. Assume that a misplaced device is lost or stolen and report this immediately.

Furthermore, always keep in mind that it’s easier for the bad guys to attack your organization through devices traveling abroad, and that many times the real goal is not to take data off your devices, but to install malware that you will bring back to your organization.

Just watch out for your digital self when you travel.

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