A Few Privacy Tips for Travelers

Traveling is usually a nerve-wracking experience, and it becomes even more so when you stop to think about all of the various ways in which your privacy is either compromised or at risk while you're en route from one city to another. That airport WiFi looks pretty attractive until you realize that any rando can be sitting in the terminal running a honeypot network called "Free Airprot WiFi" [sic] on his laptop, ready to scrape your data (or to completely pwn you) the second you jump on. TSA would just love to see what you've been up to on Facebook, particularly if you're headed to Bahrain. That USB charging station? Who know where that thing has been? The whole thing is a mess, but there are few things you can do to avoid these issues.

By the way, I agree, I hate "listicles." This post just kind of works best in a "Here Are 3 Ways You Can Blah-Blah-Blah" format, so we'll just have to deal with it.

Run Your Own Algo VPN to Safely Use Untrusted WiFi

I know it sounds like a lot of pain to run your own VPN when there are plenty of available commercial options, but just trust me, it's not that hard if you use the right tools. Whatever you do, stay away from commercial VPN's, even if they claim not to keep logs. How do you know they aren't keeping logs? How do you know they aren't actually run by spooks? You don't know. Just stay away.

I've written about Algo VPN before, so I won't dig into the details too deeply; if you want to know more, here's my previous post. Suffice it to say that Algo is dead-easy to deploy on any of the major cloud providers' VPSes (or EC2 instances, if you're into that kind of kinky stuff), and that you have complete control over it. If you trust yourself, you can trust Algo not to log your traffic or to do anything gross. The source code is completely open to all for review, and it has gotten a thumbs-up by many of the big names in the security industry.

One of the best things about Algo VPN's is that they are disposable. When you travel, you can spin up a new one in 5-10 minutes, and then use it safely on all your devices no matter how sketchy or public the WiFi networks you encounter might be. Then just tear it down when you get home. Poof, all gone.

Don't Just Plug Your Phone Into Any Old USB Port

There's probably no time I need a charging port more than when I'm at the airport, and yet there's no way I'm going to plug my iPhone blindly into one of those public stations in the terminal, or even one of the ports that are starting to appear on some planes. Remember, these things are in public places: there is no telling who has tampered with them, or what kind of creepy ad / tracking "experience" Delta or United wants to "provide."

There are several ways to avoid this sort of thing: for example you can always just bring your own powerbank. I have a couple myself, but the biggest drawback to them is that they also need to be charged before you leave home. Another idea is to use a small adapter known as a "USB condom." Yeah, I know. Let me explain. The USB standard allows for transfer of both power and data, and the data transfer aspect is what makes public ports unsafe. A USB condom works, basically, by removing the two data transfer pins, leaving only the power pins behind—so there's no data connection happening at all.

I personally recommend this little unit made by a British company called PortaPow. In addition to protecting you from unwanted data transfer, it also has another cool feature: it increases the charging amperage of most USB ports, so your device charges faster than it would otherwise. For these two reasons, I find this product ideal for travel purposes. I love it so much, I even sell it (full disclosure: that's a link to my listing above), because I think everyone should have one of these things. It's a really great thing to have on the end of your charging cable when you head to the airport.

Encrypt Your Devices, and Reboot Them Before You Go Through Security

Most of the time it's easy enough to get through security without issue, though it's incredibly annoying that we still have to take off our shoes sixteen years after one solitary nimrod tried to make a dumb shoe bomb. You never know when TSA might want to get a little up close and personal, however, and if your devices are unprotected, they can force you to cough up whatever data might be on them. An even bigger risk for most of us is simply losing a laptop or a phone, which is not at all impossible to do when you're running across a huge airport in a hurry. You don't want any random Joe to pick up your phone and start reading your texts, right?

Luckily, both Android phones and iPhones are set up to encrypt their data without too much fuss. iPhones tend to be a lot harder to crack into, but Android's encryption can do the job well enough to protect you in most instances. Just make sure you use a really strong passcode, consisting of 10 or more alphanumeric characters. You're not using a short series of digits, right? If you are, stop that.

If you use biometric auth like Apple's Touch ID, do be aware that the police and other government representatives can force you to decrypt your data with your thumb. So make sure to turn off Touch ID entirely before you leave home, and then turn it back on when you get to where you're going. If you get into line at the airport and realize you've forgotten to do this, an iPhone running iOS 11 has you covered: hit the power button 5 times quickly, and the phone will enter "panic mode," in which Touch ID is disabled (among other things). It's a great way to lock your phone up nice and tight right at the last minute.

In the case of a laptop, make sure to use full disc encryption (like FileVault on a MacBook), and to ensure that your machine has been fully shut down before you go through security. For lots of dumb legal reasons, the police can't make you decrypt your files by typing your password. Once again, if you have a newer MacBook Pro with a Touch ID sensor, be sure to disable that method of auth before you travel.

Traveling poses a lot of risks, but if you're careful you can alleviate or ameliorate a lot of the common issues. Just be careful about what you're doing, and prepare a little bit ahead of time.