Much of our day-to-day activity centres on digital technology and being online. It has become a staple of our lives and has been hyper-charged in scale and scope by the disruption and hybrid work practices born from the coronavirus pandemic. From Teams meetings and sending work emails, to travel bookings, banking and shopping, we are now sharing and consuming more and more personally-sensitive data on our devices.

By Hariprasad Viswanathan, head: sub-Saharan Africa at VFS Global

While this shift has brought fresh efficiency, it has also exposed us all to the threat of new cyberattacks. This is particularly so when we’re on the move, travelling for work or play, and at airports and train stations, where there are temptations to connect to public WiFi or to recharge our devices via USB ports.

So, when relying on the internet for your personal and work needs when travelling, it is important for you to be mindful of security, where possible, and to take steps to mitigate risk exposure when working or consuming information in unfamiliar locations.

Here are some very simple and easy-to-follow steps that could help keep you digitally safe on your 2024 travels and beyond.

* Update operating systems – Before travelling, be sure to update the operating systems across your devices. This includes apps on your phone. It is also worth considering disabling or even deleting, non-urgent apps that carry personal and financial information about you for the duration of your trip.

* Be cautious of public WiFi networks – Laws and regulations governing online security vary from country to country. Free WiFi access can be appealing while at an airport or train station but carries security risks, including “Man-in-the-Middle” (MITM) attacks from compromised routers, or “Evil twin” connections, which often take the form of similarly-named connections and are usually tied to a shop or eatery in your vicinity. It is also worth avoiding internet cafes and free Wi-Fi hotspots unless they carry password requirements. Even if they have this layer of protection, it’s best to avoid accessing personal accounts or sensitive data on such a network. At a minimum, consider using a VPN for a personal WiFi connection, or create an encrypted hotspot from your mobile phone, to connect other personal devices.

* Avoid using USB-charging ports – Publicly accessible USB ports carry genuine risk to devices and data. Termed ‘juice-jacking’, the threat has grown considerably in recent years and allows criminals to load malware onto phones and other devices of unsuspecting users. The malware can lock devices and export data such as passwords directly to the scammer. It is advisable to carry a mains charger while travelling or to use a personal power bank. In short, you should avoid public USB ports.

* Disable auto-connect and Bluetooth features – Most phones in African countries have settings that allow a device to automatically connect to WiFi networks. While this is a handy feature, it does carry risks when travelling abroad. Before travel, change this setting so that your smartphone and laptop ask before connecting each time you wish to access the Internet. The same should apply to Bluetooth connectivity while you’re away. Unless you have to use WiFi, it’s best to keep this function switched off for the duration of your trip. This will also extend the battery life of your device.

* Scale back location sharing – It’s common to update social media while travelling to new cities and countries. The problem with this is that it creates a security threat. By signalling your location, you make it easy for a criminal to determine you’re not in your hotel room or at home and can leave personal belongings vulnerable to intrusion. Limit the information you post online about your whereabouts – and, before leaving on a trip, consider how accessible your content is beyond your followers and close friends.

* Lock your devices – Most smartphones, laptops and tablets come with security settings that enable you to lock the device using a PIN number or fingerprint ID. Ensure this is a default across your personal devices. Before travelling, consider changing your PIN numbers, and, once home, repeat this process to mitigate your exposure to a breach.

* Let you bank know you’re on the move – This is a simple step that is perhaps the most overlooked by travellers. Yet it has become so much easier to perform thanks to the rise of mobile and internet banking applications. Gone are the days of having to go into a branch or sit on hold on the phone to speak to your bank. Most banking apps carry an encrypted chat or messaging feature which allows you to notify them of your movements. This quick and largely painless action before a trip can help nip potential credit or debit card fraud in the bud and allow you to access your money without the fear, and headache, of limitations being imposed on your account.

It’s better to be safe than sorry, so be mindful of the personal risks you face and adopt these easy practices before you set out on your travels.