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Be safe when staying in a hotel (part 4) - Hotels are for spying

Holidays, Hotel, Safety, Security, TravellingEdward Kiledjian2 Comments

In most countries, a hotel is simply a convenient place for you to stay and recharge. Without naming any specific countries, local intelligence agencies in some of them are known to use hotels as an information collection tool on guests.

In these countries, you should assume that everything you do is monitored including

  • telephone conversations via the telephone
  • assume the hotel's internet service is monitored
  • assume the room is bugged for audio monitoring and sometimes even video

This being said, it is important to never leave your laptop, PDA or confidential/important documents in the room. Understand that intelligence agencies are not thieves and will not steal your items but are more likely to copy or clone them so as not to arouse suspicion.

Some tips and tricks related to laptop safety

  • Travel with the minimum. When travelling overseas where there is the potential of device confiscation or espionage, ensure that you travel with the minimum information you need. Some people mistakenly assume that strong encryption (like Truecrypt is enough). Understand that any customs agent can ask you to unlock your encrypted drive or partition. If you want to go this route, use hidden volume within an encrypted drive to ensure you have plausible deniability. Move everything you don’t need onto an external drive (kept at home) and then use a tool to wipe the empty space on your disk with at least 7 over-writes.
  • Update your PC. Before travelling, ensure your software and operating system are updated. Keeping them updated minimizes the risk of having gaping exploitable vulnerabilities. For software checks, I recommend you install and use the Secunia Personal Sofware Inspector (http://secunia.com/vulnerability_scanning/personal/)
  • Secure your PC with software. Ensure you are running a good PC firewall (not the one built into Windows) and a good Antivirus. And of course… keep them updated.
  • When possible, use https to secure your internet communications. If you are using Firefox then I strongly recommend you install a free plugin called HTTPS Everywhere produced by the Electronic Frontier Foundation - https://www.eff.org/https-everywhere The EFF describes it as “It encrypts your communications with a number of major websites. Many sites on the web offer some limited support for encryption over HTTPS, but make it difficult to use. For instance, they may default to unencrypted HTTP, or fill encrypted pages with links that go back to the unencrypted site. The HTTPS Everywhere extension fixes these problems by rewriting all requests to these sites to HTTPS.”
  • VPN it. When travelling, nothing beats a reliable VPN connection  back to your home country.  There are lots of services and you should choose one you feel comfortable with. With a VPN connection, all traffic from your PC to the internet is encrypted and routed through your VPN service provider. Which means a man-in-the-middle wouldn’t be able to intercept your traffic. Make sure you choose a reliable company since the VPN provider sees the tail end of your traffic in unencrypted format (unless you use https over the VPN).

 

… to be continued

 

Be safe when staying in a hotel (part 3) - What to do when checking in

Holidays, Hotel, Safety, Security, TravellingEdward Kiledjian1 Comment

When travelling, it is best to assume that anyone can be a hostile. When you pull up to the hotel, ensure all of your luggage is removed from the taxi or bus. Stay with your luggage until it is brought into the hotel lobby. Even in the lobby, always keep an eye out for your luggage. Remember that thieves are always looking for distractions and a busy lobby may be the perfect opportunity to snatch your items (or stuff something) in your bag.

If the hotel is still using the old style metal keys (not electronic cards), pay particular attention about how they treat departing customers. Are they immediately recovering the keys and storing them behind the counter or leaving them on the counter for later processing?  Unattended keys can easily be copied and the thief can easily overhear the room number during checkout. This is not really an issue in most North American of major European cities but is a problem in certain Asian, Middle East and African hotels.

Understand that the key to safety is minimizing the information a thief can get about you. When checking in, ask the agent not to openly announce your room number but rather to just write it on the checking card.

Reiterate to the front desk that they should never give out your name or room number. If anyone asks for you, they should call you before giving any of your info out.

The minute you check in, take 2 business cards. Keep one by the phone and the other in your wallet. The one next to the phone may be handy during an emergency if you call emergency services (for the address). The one in your wallet may be used when attempting to come back to your hotel via taxi (if the driver doesn’t know your hotel by name, if there are multiple hotels with the same name or if they don’t speak English). In some countries, I have called the hotel and asked the front desk agent to explain to the cab driver I want to be taken to the hotel.

If you are a single woman travelling, you may want to check using Mr and Mrs as a safety measure.

Remember never to register your title (MBA, CFA, etc) or your company name. The name of the game is anonymity. You don’t want to be kidnapped because you work for a foreign company that may pay ransom.

 

 

… to be continued

Be safe when staying in a hotel (part 2)

Cloud, Holidays, Hotel, Safety, Security, TravellingEdward Kiledjian1 Comment

How to choose the safest hotel room

Always choose a room between the 4th and 6th floor (never lower and never higher). The 6th floor maximum is in place because most fire department truck ladders have a maximum height equal to the 6th floor[ of most hotels]. Any higher and rescue during an emergency becomes problematic.

The 4th floor recommend is in place to make it difficult for someone to enter your room from the ground floor (from the outside). If you are staying in a motel or a flat built hotel, choose a room where your balcony is on the inside of the hotel grounds (aka not towards the parking lot).

Never accept a room next to the stairs or end units, these are usually the first room thieves target. Try to get a room as close to the elevator as possible, as these are typically the safest.

As previously mentioned, get a room that has a manual door locking mechanism. Where the windows and balcony door can be opened, I typically want the hotel to provide a manual locking mechanism also.

For most overseas trips, I put the do not disturb sign on my door when I check in and take it off the day I checkout. I don’t want unattended employees in my room. When I need fresh towels or soap, I’ll pick them up on my way back from the reception desk.

If your hotel is a large multi-building setup, try to secure a room in the main building. Also stay away from buildings in isolated sections of the property.

 

… to be continued

Be safe when staying in a hotel (part 1)

Cloud, Evernote, Hotel, Safety, Security, TravellingEdward Kiledjian5 Comments

Having travelled to over 30 countries, I have picked up some interesting tips and tricks about hotel safety over the years. Since the holiday season is approaching and many of you may be travelling, I thought I would write a couple of short, bullet point style articles to help you stay safe.

The Preparation

Before leaving, I strongly recommend that you make at least 3 photocopies (front and back) of the following documents:

  • Credit cards
  • All tickets (airplane, train, show, etc)
  • Passport
  • Important documents you may be travelling with

I would leave one copy with a trusted resource back home ( as a worst case scenario backup) and carry 2 copies with me in different places. Many international hotels request that you leave a copy of your passport with them overnight while they complete your check-in (bad idea). Never surrender your original passport, give them a photocopy instead. In the age of digital, I often scan all the documents and store a digital copy somewhere in the cloud and on my iPhone ( just in case).

Another important consideration is the documentation of valuables you will be travelling with. I recommend photographing everything from different angles and serial numbers when available.

Before booking the hotel

In an emergency situation, you are ultimately responsible for your own safety. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Do your research before booking a hotel and the room. I generally want a non-biased third party to provide the below answers. If that is not possible then I try to stick to major Western chains that usually will be fairly honest with their answers.

  • Choose a hotel where the room locks are electronics. This makes it harder for previous guests or “bad guys” to have access to your room. Ask for 2 copies of the room key and keep both on you. If you misplace or lose one, immediately notify the hotel and have replacements made.
  • Make sure the room is equipped with a dead bolt lock and a peephole
  • Most of us do not pay attention to the hotel’s fire suppression system but trust me this one is important. Make sure your room is equipped with a smoke detector and that each room (and the hallways) have visible sprinkler systems. In many countries the fire response teams are not as fast, well equipped or trained as in North America.
  • Make sure that the hotel environment is secure with proper fencing and that the guest areas are well lit (parking, hallways, ice rooms, etc).
  • Generally I prefer hotels where the elevator leaving the parking area only goes to the lobby (and not directly to the rooms).
  • I try to make sure that any hotel I choose has adequate security personnel. I like to see uniformed security personnel that seem to be well trained and adequately equipped (in this case adequate depends on the area.) They should be willing to escort you to your room or vehicle if requested.
  • I recommend you contact the foreign affairs ministry of your country (DFAIT in Canada, US Embassy for USA, etc). Ask them about the area the hotel is located in and determine how safe it is.

… to be continued