The risk of becoming an intelligence target
increases greatly during foreign travel. As an American government official, scientist, or
business traveler with access to useful information, you can become the target of a
foreign intelligence or security service at anytime in any country. As described in Who's Doing What to Whom, the threat is
certainly not limited to so-called "unfriendly" countries.
Information for persons living overseas and potentially exposed to terrorism
is available in the
Antiterrorism and Force Protection module.
Never think, "They wouldn't dare risk
something like that against me. They have too much at stake." Many countries do risk
it, routinely, because the potential benefits are great and the risks are very low when an
intelligence service is operating on its home turf. Even U.S. Government cabinet level
officials and corporate CEOs have been assigned to bugged hotel rooms and had all their
documents secretly photographed or their laptop computers accessed.
Conversely, never think you are too
low-ranking to be of interest. Secretaries, file clerks and cleaning crew are targeted
because they can often provide access to valuable information.
Foreign government scrutiny of you while
visiting another country may occur by design or chance for any of the following reasons:
- You have government, business, scientific, or
technical information of potential value to a foreign government or a local industry.
- You have relatives or
organizational affiliations or speak the local language fluently in the country you are visiting.
- You fit a terrorism, narcotic trafficking,
criminal, or other profile.
- You buy or sell on the black-market.
- The local government
discovers on your person or in your luggage literature that is banned or strictly controlled.
- You are associating with individuals the host
government considers as political dissidents.
Here are some
of the common methods that may be used. Most activities directed against
you will be conducted in an unobtrusive manner that you are very unlikely to
notice. Others are sometimes conducted in a rather crude manner that is
observable. Brief summaries of many cases in which American travelers have
reported such observations are found in In
the Line of Fire: American Travelers Abroad.
Assessment - Friendly discussion with
local contacts who assess whether you have information of value and seek to identify any
personal attitudes, beliefs, problems or needs that could be exploitable.
Elicitation - A ploy whereby seemingly
normal conversation is contrived to extract intelligence information of value. See Elicitation. Advantages of this technique
are that it:
- Puts someone at ease to share information.
- Is difficult to recognize as an intelligence
- Is easily deniable.
Eavesdropping - Listening to other
peoples' conversations to gather information.
- Frequently done in social environments where
attendees feel comfortable and secure and, therefore, are more likely to talk about
themselves or their work.
- Frequent venues include restaurants, bars, and
- Eavesdropping can occur in a radius of six to
eight seats on public transportation or 10-12 feet in other settings.
Technical Eavesdropping - Use of audio
and visual devices, usually concealed. See Bugging
Hotel Rooms and, for more technical information, Bugs
and Other Eavesdropping Devices.
- Relatively cost efficient and low risk.
- Concealed devices can be installed in public
and private facilities -- such as hotel rooms, restaurants, offices, and automobiles.
"Bag Operations" -
Surreptitious entry into someone's hotel room to steal, photograph, or photocopy
documents; steal or copy magnetic media; or download from laptop computers. See Theft While Traveling.
- Often conducted or condoned by host government
intelligence or security services or by operatives for local corporations.
- Frequently done with cooperation of hotel
Surveillance - Following you
to determine your contacts and activities.
- Labor intensive if done correctly. Not usually
done unless you are suspected of improper activity or a target of great interest.
Theft of Information -
Stealing documents, briefcases, laptop computers or sensitive equipment. See Theft While Traveling.
- Laptop computers are especially vulnerable as
they may contain a treasure trove of information.
- Theft of laptops from hotel rooms and while
transiting airports is especially common.
- Foreign service has plausible denial, as the
laptop may have been stolen for the value of the laptop rather than value of the
information it contained. You may never know whether the information was compromised or
Intercepting Electronic Communications
- Telephones, fax, telex, and computers can all be monitored electronically. See Overseas Communications and, for more technical
information, see Intercepting
Your Communications in the module on Vulnerability
to Technical Operations.
- You are particularly vulnerable while
communicating to, from or within foreign countries, as most foreign telecommunications
systems cooperate with their country's security service.
- Office, hotel, and portable telephones
(including cellular) are key targets.
- Many hotels have added high-speed
wireless connections so that guest may connect to the Internet or access
their office network while on the road. Hackers can exploit unsecured or
poorly secured hotel networks to gain access to a guest's laptop computer
or to proceedings of a conference held in the hotel.
How to Protect Yourself
Common sense and basic counterintelligence
(CI) awareness can effectively protect you against foreign attempts to collect sensitive,
proprietary, and other privileged information. A few tips are listed below. For more
extensive information, see Security and Safety
Recommendations for overseas travel. For protection against terrorist
attack, hijacking, or kidnapping, see Antiterrorism
and Force Protection.
- Arrange a pre-travel briefing from your
- Maintain physical control of all sensitive
documents or equipment at all times. Do not leave items that would be of value to a
foreign intelligence service unattended in hotel rooms or stored in hotel safes.
- Limit sensitive discussions -- hotel rooms or
other public places are rarely suitable to discuss sensitive information.
- Do not use computer or facsimile equipment at
foreign hotels or business centers for sensitive matters.
- Do not divulge information to anyone not
authorized to hear it.
- Ignore or deflect intrusive inquiries or
conversation about business or personal matters.
- Keep unwanted material until it can be
disposed of securely. Burn or shred paper and cut floppy disks in pieces and discard.
- Keep your laptop computer as carry-on baggage
-- never check it with other luggage and, if possible, remove or control storage media.
- If secure communications equipment is
accessible, use it to discuss business matters.
- Report any CI incident to the relevant U.S.
Government agency and/or your local security office.
Related Topic: In
the Line of Fire: American Travelers Abroad, Antiterrorism
and Force Protection.
Most of the information in this module on risks during foreign travel comes from
publications of the Overseas Security Advisory Council. OSAC is a joint venture between
State Department and private sector security professionals designed to exchange
security-related information pertaining to foreign travel. OSAC may be contacted at (202)
663-0533. Information is available via the OSAC web site at