If you ever travel with a smartphone, laptop, or tablet, your data is at risk of being lost or stolen. Whether it’s the result of a bag disappearing, a drink being spilled, or a cybercriminal hacking your online accounts, data loss can have both minor and major consequences, from losing travel photos to outright identity theft. And with the busiest travel weekend of the year right around the corner, it’s important to keep your data as secure as your belongings — even on the way to grandma’s house.
Unless you’re ready to leave the electronics at home and stick to chronicling your journey with pen and paper alone, it’s time to take data protection seriously. Here’s how to maximize the chances that data stays safe wherever you are.
- Back up digital files. Anything that’s already stored on your electronic devices (especially important files and photos) should be backed up to an external hard drive prior to your departure. That way you have everything you need even if the worst happens and the data gets lost while traveling. While you’re at it, take an inventory of your data so you’ll have a sense of whether anything looks off (or is missing) upon returning home.
- Run updates. Make sure you’re running the latest version of devices’ operating systems and antivirus software. Also run antivirus scans prior to departure.
- Initiate password protection. Combine this with an inactivity timeout on any electronics that you’ll be bringing along (so people can’t easily log onto your device if they find it unattended). On all devices, be sure to create strong passwords.
- Only use secure internet connections. Free or public wireless services are all but guaranteed to be insecure; assume data isn’t safe over these connections, and refrain from entering any sensitive data (also remember that paying for Wi-Fi doesn’t guarantee the connection is secure).
The safest networks are those that are password-protected, and the safest websites are those that start with https://. Using the web browser’s “incognito” or “private browsing” mode can help ensure that personal data doesn’t get saved, but it’s no guarantee of security (likewise for deleting cookies and browsing history after logging off).
Also be sure to disable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on all devices whenever they aren’t in use. Want to learn more? Check out the Federal Trade Commission’s guide to Using Public Wi-Fi Networks.
- Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Installing a VPN can help protect your data as it’s transferred between different devices. VPNs are especially handy for business travelers who may need to send and receive sensitive documents while on the road.
- Disable cookies and auto-fill. These are the features that automatically enter login info and passwords on websites. Be sure to disable this function before traveling—it would only make it easier for electronics thieves to access your personal data.
- Don’t upgrade software on public Wi-Fi. Cybercriminals have started to create fake “update” notices that allows them to install malware on travelers’ devices. If the Wi-Fi network isn’t secure, don’t accept any operating system, app, or software upgrades.
- Don’t perform online transactions involving money. Whenever possible, avoid accessing online banking, Paypal, or anything that requires you to provide credit card information. And be sure to only use bank ATMs, which are less likely to be hit by identity thieves using card readers.
- Create a travel-specific email address. Whenever possible, use a dedicated email address just for the trip; this will help you avoid logging into personal or work accounts while traveling. Be sure not to share or store personal information on the new account.
- Keep your devices on you at all times. And when they’re not in use, turn them off. If you must leave a device in a hotel room or hostel, make sure to lock it up.
When You Get Back
- Change passwords. Update passwords on all devices as well as frequently visited websites.
- Take stock. Review bank activity, credit card activity, and health insurance claim activity to confirm that everything looks accurate, and continue keeping tabs on these accounts for at least the next few months.
- Run security scans. Run antivirus and anti-spyware scans on all devices. If malware is detected, follow the antivirus tool’s direction for addressing the issue.
It doesn’t matter if you’re exploring Santa Fe’s culture, adventuring in Paris, road-tripping around Ireland, or piling in the car for turkey and family reunions — a little prep, a lot of proactivity, and follow-through upon returning home will all help ensure that your data remains your own no matter where in the world you are.