Many stories reach the public on how use of social media has helped travelers caught up in incidents when abroad – Twitter, Facebook and others have all enabled individuals to rapidly share information with fellow travelers during security incidents and natural disasters. It is often the fastest way to get a picture of real time events unfolding from those closer to the incident.
How often though do we stop to consider how the use of social media can itself create or contribute to a dangerous incident, and unwittingly place innocent people in harm’s way? As we feel more and more at ease sharing details of our travels with wide groups of online friends do we really understand the level to which that information can be exploited and in so doing set conditions for a severe compromise of the both our online and indeed cyber security and safety?
The danger is out there…
While serving in the military I recall how on landing in an operational theater that our cellphones and smartphones were taken from us by our units as part of the arrivals process. Unsurprisingly many young soldiers (and a few old ones too) felt aggrieved by this as they, like their civilian peers, are equally glued to their phones as an electronic extension of their social lives. But their attitudes quickly changed when some of the technical experts briefed us on how social media updates can provide a detailed picture to an adversary. Soldiers were careful not to give out operational details but simply posting a photos of themselves or what appeared a harmless status update was not without risk. We were briefed in detail of real examples where families of soldiers back at home had been targeted and harassed by phone and online from overseas as a result of a compromise of their personal information from use of social media when deployed.
Fortunately the military provided us with secure communications and satellite links for internet access which prevented local networks from being used – thus significantly reducing the risks involved. But what of the student traveler abroad or group backpacking though remote areas who are reliant upon locally based networks and access? Just how safe are they?
So much of what we do nowadays is linked to our online presence – banking, travel plans, contacts, calendars, insurance to name but a few all can be managed via our smartphones and on-the-go whilst travelling. We don’t tend to worry about it – in fact we demand it from our providers.
Research reveals that the number of thefts and break-ins at properties when their owners are abroad can be linked to opportunistic criminals who identified they property was not occupied thanks to unwitting holiday snaps posted online. But what of the direct personal danger this can place you in whilst abroad? –“checking-in” at a venue or business advertises your presence there. Announcing you are boarding an international flight also gives criminals a clear window of opportunity when you will not have access to phone or internet and as such can engage in bank fraud and online theft unnoticed.
“According to a survey an overwhelming 78 percent of (convicted) ex-burglars interviewed said that they strongly believed social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Four Square are being used by current thieves when targeting properties.
How can social media use increase physical risk?
Careless use of social media can also lead to physical risks. A steady stream of geo-tagged photos in conjunction with status updates can reveal current and future travel plans in sufficient detail to allow a criminal group to plan to interdict you or your party.
According to a study commissioned by UK insurers – 1 in 10 British vacationers share the length and location of their plans abroad online whilst 1 in 8 will post details of their travels from overseas.
In January 2015 ten Israeli backpackers were attacked in a hostel in Patagonia, Argentina by 3 armed assailants. It was assessed to be an anti-Semitic attack with the hostel in particular targeted because of its Hebrew-language Facebook page.
In more deliberate and protracted cases – drugs traffickers target would be mules using the internet:
“The most efficient way for these cartels to move drugs around is with unsuspecting human ‘mules’, who are often distracted, or blinded, by a range of needs that are identified and exploited by the cartels – including the need for love and companionship. These people are generally groomed over a long period of time, online, where access to information is readily obtainable through social media sites such as Facebook’
Virtual Kidnapping – The Growth of Scam Kidnap
Virtual kidnapping has increased in recent years, specifically in Latin America. This is a form of kidnap where criminals intimate to their victim that they have a loved one in their control. By exploiting technology and predominantly social media virtual kidnappers rely on deception and fear tactics to make families think they have kidnapped someone. The whole tactic is to ensure that the ‘victim’ is in a place where they cannot be contacted by the family, and that they receive the ransom (normally small amounts) before family members realize it is a scam.
The virtual kidnappers will often use social media to ‘follow’ their victims and identify a period of opportunity, for example a long flight or a camping expedition in a remote area. Then they will contact the family or business and demand immediately a sum of money (usually affordable and easily wired) and insist that the person stay on the phone using fear tactics but always aimed at ensuring that their ruse is not discovered.
When traveling consider what information and details you are publishing and making public. Think about any repercussions and also judge it from a criminal’s point of view ‘what could be used against me?’
Travel Safety Training from Security Specialists
The Explore Secure eLearning travel safety programs are designed by professionals with extensive security experience and backgrounds in counter-terrorism and Special Forces. This expertise has shaped the content of the travel safety briefing.
Travel Safety Training Modules Include:
- Prior Preparation and Planning
- Avoiding Muggings and Robbery
- Surviving Natural Disasters
- Overland Transportation Safety
- Health and First Aid
- Safety in Hotels
- Surviving Terrorist and Active Shooter Incidents
- Situational Awareness
- Safety at Sea
There are multiple other modules including female travel safety and other specialist concerns such as LGBT, mental health concerns, social media safety and an array of case studies and lessons learned of where traveling has gone wrong.