A Traveler’s Guide to Maintaining Privacy Away from Home

When you’re on the road, in the air, or crashing at a hotel, you’re more vulnerable to having your privacy violated.

Some privacy threats you quite frankly can’t do much about. If you’re going to fly, you’ll have to go through intrusive screenings, and records on you will be kept by the airlines. Records that can be accessed by the government. But you don’t have to surrender your privacy willy-nilly to the travel industry. There are steps you can take to
keep yourself and your personal data safer and more secure while you’re away from home.

Is the Hotel You’re Staying
at Spying on You?

Some in the hospitality industry take the attitude that the more they know about you the better. They claim that they only want to serve their customers better by providing a more personalized experience. In some cases that may be true. But in all cases it’s about maximizing profits.

“The volume of data being collected by luxury hotel chains such as Ritz-Carlton or Peninsula might make an NSA agent blush,” writes Christopher Elliott for USA TODAY (November 25, 2013). Yet the author suggests we shouldn’ t be the least bit bothered – and should even welcome more data collection. His article is entitled, “Why Travel Suppliers Should ‘Spy’ on Their Customers.”

Elliott explains, “I think surveillance is good, at least, if you travel. Airlines, car rental companies and hotels ought to spy on their customers more often.”

Perhaps he enjoys the attention of a high-profile lifestyle and feels special when hotel staff know his habits and preferences and personal background before he checks in. But for those who prefer to keep a low profile and avoid intrusive data collection, the less a hotel is able to pry in to your personal life, the better.

You can frustrate efforts by the travel industry to “get to know you” by paying in cash rather than credit cards and avoiding loyalty programs. You might even check in to hotels under an alias if anonymity is desired. Most hotels will ask for a credit card upon check-in, though if you insist on leaving a cash deposit instead, most will oblige.

Beware of free wi-fi at airports and hotels. They’re fine for checking news headlines or sports scores, but any information you send over such connections could be vulnerable. Hotels may give you the illusion of privacy by giving you a unique router or password, but that only helps the hotel identify who is doing what online. To establish a truly private Internet connection away from home, you may need a virtual private network (VPN).

A STEP to Safer International Travels…
Or to Greater Privacy Invasions?

The U.S. Department of State recently launched what it calls the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). STEP gives international travelers the ability to register with the State Department. It says doing so is recommended “so that, in an emergency, we can contact them to provide important safety and security information, or support during a crisis. Enrolling in STEP is an easy way to send your contact information to us…”

Anything proffered by a government agency that contains the words “smart,” “enrollment,” or “program” is automatically suspect. We don’t know whether the State Department shares your STEP profile with the IRS or other agencies, but the operating assumption must be that it can and probably will.

Rather than enroll in STEP, you can simply keep contact information for U.S. Embassies and Consulates with you at all times when traveling out of the country. That way you can get in touch with them, if necessary (in all likelihood it won’t be). It’s also a good idea to share your detailed travel plans with one trusted person back home who won’t share them with anyone who doesn’t need to know.