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Traveling Safe, Traveling Smart

Keep your guard up when traveling: Bad Actors never take vacations

Recent news that the Federal Trade Commission has filed a complaint against Wyndham Worldwide Corp.--better known as Wyndham Hotels--is not only a revelation for the travel industry, but also for individual guests.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the minutiae of the charges against the hotel chain. But the FTC alleges that security failures led to three data breaches at Wyndham and three of its subsidiaries in less than two years.

The FTC claims that repeated security failures exposed consumers' personal data to unauthorized access. Additionally, according to the FTC, Wyndham and its subsidiaries failed to take security measures, such as complex user IDs and passwords, firewalls, and network segmentation between the hotels and corporate network. Also, the defendants allegedly allowed improper software configurations, which resulted in the storage of sensitive payment card information in clear, readable text, the FTC stated.

The "memory-scraping" malware installed on numerous (as many as 41 Wyndham property management system servers) ultimately led to the compromise of more than 500,000 payment card accounts and the export of hundreds of thousands of consumers' payment card account numbers to a domain registered in Russia.

All right, you're saying, the responsibility for this breach and the lack of precautionary steps to thwart it land at the metaphorical feet of Wyndham and the bad actors based in Russia, right?

Well, partially, but not completely.

For me, particularly when I'm traveling, data security is all about personal accountability. It goes back to the days when I was first learning to drive. Yes, you take responsibility for your actions on the road, but you have to be constantly aware of the other cars around you, any of which could swerve into your lane and cause an accident. In other words, you hope the other drivers are as well-prepared for the commute as you are and have taken all the necessary precautions to ensure they -- and everyone around them -- gets to where they’re going safely.

So how exactly do you travel safely and smartly?

The FBI -- which warned travelers in the month ahead of the Wyndham breaches about malicious actors targeting travelers abroad through pop-up windows offering what appears to be a routine update to a legitimate software product -- suggests:

• Checking the author or digital certificate of a prompted update to see whether it corresponds to the software vendor.

• Performing software updates on laptops immediately before traveling, and download software updates directly from the software vendor's website if updates are necessary while abroad.

To augment those steps, I recommend:

• Patching and updating before traveling.

• Scanning with security software when returning from travel.

• Using a VPN to connect back to company networks while on the road.

• Using a separate credit card for travel costs and keeping a close eye on the statements for possible fraud. As an aside, the hospitality industry is a popular target for hackers because it has geographically diverse, decentralized networks with little to no IT presence at individual sites.

• Individuals traveling with particularly sensitive data could consider using a travel laptop that does not store the data.

Moving from the sublime to the edge of paranoia, on that last bullet I bring your attention to the story of Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, who regularly travels to the People’s Republic and follows a routine that would make James Bond or Jason Bourne proud.

According to this article in The New York Times, Liebethal "leaves his cellphone and laptop at home and instead brings 'loaner' devices, which he erases before he leaves the United States and wipes clean the minute he returns. In China, he disables Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, never leaves his phone out of sight, and, in meetings, not only turns off his phone but also removes the battery, for fear his microphone could be turned on remotely. He connects to the Internet only through an encrypted, password-protected channel, and copies and pastes his password from a USB thumb drive. He never types in a password directly, because, he said, 'the Chinese are very good at installing key-logging software on your laptop.'"

While for the casual traveler I would never advocate taking such radical precautions, I would suggest to you to keep in mind that not everyone else on the road, on the Internet, or even at your favorite hotel chain always has your best interests in mind. Sometimes you need both great defensive driving skills and strong passwords to ensure you travel safe and travel smart.

Brian Royer, a security subject matter expert, Sophos U.S., is partnering with SophosLabs to research and report on the latest trends in malware, Web threats, endpoint and data protection, mobile security, cloud computing, and data center virtualization.

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