How to manage cybersecurity risks of international travel

Work-related travel requires security steps before, during and after the trip

Work-related international travel has always posed its own unique set of risks and rewards. Our greatest travel concerns traditionally revolve around losing our wallets or identification. However, in this digital age, we must also exercise great caution with portable electronic devices. Organizations must continue to evolve policies and procedures in order to ensure that laptops, cell phones and other communications equipment are appropriately safeguarded. This article is designed to assist in developing an international travel policy and will focus on the technical risks and mitigations organizations and individuals can take to protect devices and sensitive information.

In preparation

When planning for international travel, it is important to remember that individuals have no expectation of privacy in most countries. Also, they have the ultimate responsibility and accountability for security when traveling overseas. Therefore, it is always preferable to leave communications equipment at home while traveling abroad. 

Related: 9 things feds should know about secure international travel

Unfortunately, given the nature of most overseas assignments, this is often not a realistic possibility.  Ideally, organizations will have set aside hardened mobile equipment to loan to employees for international travel. This helps reduce the risk of carrying standard work equipment that often contains sensitive institutional data.  If this is not available, there are several steps that can be taken in preparation for a trip that will mitigate some of the potential risk.

First and foremost, back up all data and remove sensitive information from the traveler’s accompanying devices.  Ensure that all accounts have been setup with strong passwords and lockdown services and ports that will not be necessary for the trip.  Additionally, make sure that system and application patches are up-to-date and that the latest malware signatures are pulled by using the latest version of antivirus software. It is also important to employ strong encryption for any information that will be carried abroad.

While traveling

While traveling overseas, one will encounter a range of digital threats even before retrieving luggage from the overhead compartment. This is largely due to the traveler’s mobile phone connecting with the local cellular tower. This connection gives foreign entities the opportunity to intercept traffic and, in some cases, introduce malware to your phone in order to siphon information from its calendar, e-mail and other files.

In addition to cellular signals, mobile phones typically also broadcast Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Global Positioning System information. To reduce this risk, these services should be turned off when not in use. However, the most effective protection is to turn off the phone and remove the battery until it is needed.

Airports pose their own unique set of challenges for foreign travelers. Threats range from criminals preying on conspicuous tourists to the customs process that all travelers pass through upon arrival. Risks of this nature can for the most part be avoided by visual and physical contact with your belongings at all times.  However, customs officials can introduce challenges that are not often considered. 
In some countries, customs officials may not permit entry with encrypted data and will ask to examine your devices. 

As a guest in a foreign country and subject to its laws, the recommended response to this request is to unlock the equipment for their review, rather than turning over a password, token or key.  If such an examination were to occur, there is strong possibility that data would be copied and/or the device would be tampered with. In either case, you will want to report this type of breach to your organization as soon as possible.

While on travel, hotels can be your home away from home, but you cannot assume the same protections to ensure the security of your information.  Many travelers rely upon hotel facilities for telephones, fax machines and computer access in the business center, but keep in mind that phone and facsimile lines are often monitored. Public computers in business centers, internet cafés and kiosks are ripe for monitoring, malware and other similar issues. These services should not be used for any sensitive business or personal communications. 

Also, do not assume that information and communications equipment is secure because it is locked in a guest room or stored in a safe. Hotel employees have universal access to rooms and safes on the premises and, in some countries, officials may monitor hotel rooms of foreign guests. In order to ensure the security of information, mobile devices should stay with the traveler at all times. However, if this is not possible, all mobile devices should be shut off and not left in the sleep or hibernate mode.  The security mechanisms in place, including full disk encryption, can be circumvented if physical access is available to machines that are in these suspended modes. 

It is also advisable to store your encryption key, token, battery and subscriber identity module (SIM) card in a separate location from the mobile device.  If on official travel in a high-threat location, one must assume that hotel rooms have been pre-selected to facilitate electronic and visual monitoring. 

Upon return

When returning home from a trip abroad, it is important to consider all of the accompanying equipment to be “compromised” until it is reviewed and sanitized. To be safe, the traveler should avoid connecting equipment to a work or home network, as it could have picked up malware that could propagate upon connection.  Also, all equipment should be submitted for scanning, sanitization or replacement.  Once back at a secure and trusted facility, change all passwords and dispose of any removable media acquired or used during the course of travel.

International travel poses risks that an organization may never have encountered during the course of normal business operations.  Given this elevated level of risk, organizations must take additional steps to mitigate threats through implementing formal international travel policies and procedures. By providing secured devices for use during foreign travel and by educating employees on what to bring and how to protect their data and equipment, organizations will help facilitate more informed decisions on the part of their employees.

Note: Research for this article was draw primarily from two sources:“Tips from the National Counterintelligence Executive: Traveling Overseas with Mobile Phones, Laptops, PDA's and Other Electronic Devices” and the State Department’s“International Travel Information, Country Reports.”

About the Author

Members of the (ISC)2 U.S. Government Advisory Council Executive Writers Bureau include federal IT security experts from government and industry. For a full list of Bureau members, visit


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