From contactless services to self-service dangers to ‘shoulder surfing’ and ‘juice-jacking’, the risks of pandemic-containment digitalization are a ticking time bomb.

Amid the current pandemic, different methods of tracking people have been introduced. Whether you have to register online to eat at a restaurant or write your name and address details on paper when entering some event, you hand your personal data to unknown people.

Even though the only reason is for medical professionals to access such data and use it when infections are detected (for stop further spreading), we have seen unauthorized (or forcefully authorized) access to such data by, say, police forces or staff of the location. Unavoidable tracking of physical location poses a huge threat to privacy, one that has not been solved. In fact, criminals may be able to access such data and use it to further attacks like phishing, spam or malware attacks like ransomware.

What is more, some countries demand not only medical test certification from travelers, but also expect them to share extensive amounts of private information, perhaps by forcing them to install tracking apps that enable permanent, targeted surveillance. It is hard to foresee how long such policies will in place, but it may be permanent in some countries.

Tracing apps: a data security risk

Tracking apps can introduce a vast number of functionalities: they can acquire not only real-time location data, but also enable access the local data on your smartphone. Even after the end of the pandemic there may be other future demands for such kinds of tracking, applied to people such as criminals or under the excuse of “averting future crises”.

The apps and data are here to stay, and we have to monitor how this will be used later on. Unintuitively, the pandemic and the subsequent restrictions put in place could actually increase privacy in other respects. For example, a common problem while traveling is ‘visual and audible hacking’ (aka ‘shoulder surfing’). With social-distancing rules in force, such information snooping will be harder and therefore may increase the level of physical security and privacy to a certain degree. However, once social distancing restrictions are relaxed, travelers will need to resume precautions to avoid ‘shoulder surfing’. 

To be fair, we realize travel industry digitalization did not just begin as a result of the pandemic, nor is it relegated to the world of tracking COVID-19 infections. From buying tickets to the equipment in your hotel room, travel is becoming more and more digital—and introducing more and more risks. Here are some other important considerations to keep in mind when leaving your home: 

  1. Your place – not your home
    You probably know the phrase that hotels and other accommodation providers commonly use: “feels like home”. But these places are NOT your home! In places you do not own, you have no control over the connected devices around you at all. Is there a smart TV with a camera in your room? What about smart air-controls, voice assistants, entertainment offerings and all the other small helpers integrated in modern shared accommodations? All of them can be a threat to your privacy or cause a security problem if you connect your own devices to them. Even a power outlet with a USB port to charge your phone may be a risk either in terms of security or the physical health of your device. Hotels and event locations are also using the current period where there are few tourists to renovate and upgrade their venues, which means we may see more of such technologies integrated in the near future.
  2. Public Wi-Fi makes you a sitting duck
    Is it not convenient to use local Wi-Fi in hotels, restaurants or other locations? You may get decent connection speed, and you do not have to worry about being charged by your own telco even when outside of your local or roaming network. But did you ever think about who controls the network you are connected to—what type of data you share or which websites you are opening? It does not have to be the operator, but criminals may snoop on your traffic, collect sensitive data or may even try to attack your mobile devices. Encryption, not only on your local device, but also on remote connections, is essential outside your home.
  3. Self-service your data away
    Nowadays, hotels and locations offer publicly accessible self-service options, usually on digital tablets or a computer. The idea is simple: you log in to your email account or wherever you may have stored your ticket, you open it, and print. This process may take a few minutes, but did you forget anything? The ‘Logout’ and ‘Clear browsing data’ options may be forgotten due to stress while checking out. However, I have experienced many such devices that still retain full access to all data, like emails, documents, and your calendar, when you are using the services of certain global service providers with a huge portfolio. This puts you at risk of your data being abused by criminals, who can send out spam or phishing emails to your contacts and social network.
  4. Who is sitting next to you?
    Even before the pandemic, ensuring that you were communicating with the right person in the digital world was difficult, and in many cases, phishers and other criminals abused this loophole. In 2020 people became even more vulnerable, with cybercriminals using ‘urgent pandemic information’ for their scams. There have been cases of fake e-mails regarding cancelled flight refunds, fake messages from government entities and even those trying to sell fake cures or surgical masks that were in shortage. 

As the physical and digital world continue to merge further, security will become more important than ever before. This means improving your own security is now a necessity and protecting yourself in the physical and digital worlds is crucial, especially when stepping out of your home.

The most fundamental precaution to take is to be aware of the risks and be cautious about your data and behavior.