How to Keep Vacations Safe Online

After a family vacation out East, here are some observations, tips and reminders about using your tech devices on the road. How can we enable online security while enjoying family fun at the same time? What advice helps keep data on your personal (and professional) laptops, smartphones and other devices safe at the beach, in airports, visiting hotels and more?

by / July 1, 2018

I just returned from a fun, action-packed, 10-day vacation with my wife and three (out of four) children. Along the way, I learned (and remembered) a thing or two about cybersafety and mixing work and play. 

Our drive out East (from Michigan) included stops in Washington, D.C., and Lancaster, Pa., and Ocean City, Md. We toured the White House, visited the new Museum of the Bible and Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, saw my extended Lohrmann family at a reunion in southeast Pennsylvania, sat on beautiful Atlantic beaches, went on boat rides, walked the OC Boardwalk, enjoyed great restaurants, ice cream and fast food, and rendezvoused with people at airports and more.

No, this is not the first time I’ve written on technology topics about vacation. Some readers may remember that I traveled to Ocean City back in 2012 and wrote this piece about using vacation Wi-Fi networks — or not. I also wrote this blog about not having Internet access on vacation as well as this blog which considers whether or not to do work email on vacation. (Yes — I still do work email on vacation today — and I still use the one-hour rule that I came up with a decade ago.) However, I do occasionally go for a digital detox — as I describe here — in order to recharge.    

Here are some initial observations from my 2018 summer vacation:

A lot of people are still losing technology in airports — including smartphones, laptops and more. While waiting (for less than an hour) to pick up my son at Reagan National Airport (DCA), I watched as men and women reported missing items to security, heard several announcements for someone to return to security checkpoints for left laptops and saw a smartphone returned to a passenger who left it on a plane. TIP/Reminder: Please utilize the PIN lock feature on smartphones and enable encryption on laptops. These easy-to-use (and free) features are still not enabled by millions of Americans, and they will save you BIG TIME if you lose a device or if your technology is stolen.        

Research where you are going (again if necessary) to save time and money and help improve security/safety. Whenever I did my homework in advance (by just googling the place I was going/staying/traveling to), I saved significant time, dollars and heartache. In some cases, like the White House tour, my research began last year, and I needed to work with my Congressman’s office to get the approvals and background checks for our family months in advance. But even rides on the DC Metro (which I have done many times in the past) were helped by visiting the website to understand new rules, fares and travel routes.     

There are still many cell tower dead spots all over Pennsylvania, D.C., Maryland and Ohio. Don’t assume that your smartphone’s built-in Wi-Fi hot spot feature will always work in your car and on the beach. (Side note: It can be very hard to even see your smartphone screen well enough to read email on the beach due to the glare.)    

The Lohrmann family turns off all technology during meals together, and this works especially well during vacations. Even if you can’t get this idea to work at home with your kids, consider adding this “rule” (or call it what you want) for your vacation.

Make sure you know what Wi-Fi your family is connecting to, as several hotels and neighbors have multiple options that look similar. I was amazed at the different levels of security at different places, and I used a VPN to ensure secure data transmission.   

Don’t forget to make sure your home is secure while you are gone.

The Cyber Threat and a Few Good Travel Tips

There are plenty of helpful lists that can help you stay safe at a time when hackers are increasingly targeting the tourism market. Here is an excerpt from Smart Company (Australia):

“Cyber criminals will invariably look for the weakest links. This might be individuals who never update their passwords and use unidentified Wi-Fi networks without due diligence. Or it could be particular commercial sectors that are lagging behind in cyber security standards.

The Akamai report highlights that in the last year organized cyber criminals are increasingly targeting the tourism market. A staggering 3.9 billion malicious login attempts occurred during the last year against sites belonging to airlines, cruise lines, hotels, online travel, automotive rental and transport organizations.

Finding out who is responsible is a trickier problem. Evidence suggests that exploitation of hotel and travel sites is mostly emanating from Russia and China, and it’s possibly the work of organized cyber criminals targeting tourists for easy gain. But more work needs to be done to map cyber crime and understand the complex criminal networks that underpin it. …”

More Tips to Have a Safe Cybersummer

This CSO magazine article offers several ways (in detail) to have a safe cyber summer.

  • Practice safe wi-fi
  • Upgrade your passwords
  • Recognize scams in email and on the web
  • Protect yourself from viruses and malware
  • Keep your devices updated
  • Control your social media
  • Educate your family and friends

Dark Reading has these summer vacation tips (with details to consider):

  • Make Use of a VPN
  • Think About Physical Security
  • Take Care of Thumb Drives
  • Lock Down Your Work Area
  • Be Smart About Using Corporate Assets
  • Update and Secure All Devices
  • Make Good Choices About Social Media Platforms

My Other Vacation Tips

I have found that technology and security pros often let their guards down when they go on vacation with their family. Their personal devices may have more open access, and they do things that they would not do with work devices or data.

Note: There are certainly exceptions to this, and some people have tighter controls on personal devices than corporate devices, but this is an exception in my experience.

So first, review your current situation regarding all the technology that is coming along on your vacation. Are backups in place? Is security up to date with patches applied? Have you enabled two-factor authentication on your important accounts?  

Second, (and this may be the hardest), make sure your family members understand their online situation and personal choices regarding security. Follow the advice in this blog on how to present security so people will listen. Start early, and make this part of a wider discussion regarding online safety.   

Third, a little pre-trip preparation, using my initial thoughts and observations above, can help. Think about this in the same way you consider purchasing airline tickets or choosing hotels or coupon deals.

One final thought: Facebook and other social media sites are great for sharing pictures and experiences with family and friends, but the bad actors have used Facebook to steal from homes while families are away. Be careful what you share online and consider not revealing too many details that could be exploited if the wrong people see the updates.

Consider these tips on what not to share on social media during the vacation.