Your information and valuables are far more
vulnerable to theft while traveling abroad than in the United States. Principal targets
for theft include:
- Government and business documents of interest
to the local intelligence service.
- Personal documents (passport and other ID and
travel documents) of interest to criminal organizations, including those that arrange
illegal immigration to the U.S.
- Laptop computers are of interest to everyone
-- for the information on them, for resale, or for personal use.
- Expensive jewelry, cameras, and any other
items that are easy to sell.
You have special vulnerabilities in your
hotel room, elsewhere in your hotel, while in the airport or on the train, with sensitive
equipment in transit, and in any office to which local foreign nationals have unrestricted
Hotel Rooms and Vaults
"Bag operations" is the term commonly used to describe
surreptitious entry into hotel rooms to steal, photograph, or photocopy documents; steal
or copy magnetic media; or download from laptop computers. Bag operations are common. In
fact, they are routine procedure in quite a few countries.
Bag operations are typically conducted by the
host governments security or intelligence service, frequently with cooperation of
the hotel staff. Hotel security staffs commonly maintain close contact with the local
police and government security service. It is common for retired government security and
intelligence officers to obtain employment in the security offices of major hotels and
corporations. Bag operations may also be conducted by the corporation you are dealing with
or by a competitor company. They may be done during the day while you are out of the room
or at night while you are asleep. Yes, they do take the risk of coming into your room
while you are sleeping!
Government and business travelers often
report that their belongings have been searched while they were absent from their hotel
room. In some cases, they have returned to their room soon after departing, to retrieve a
forgotten item, and find persons in their room claiming they are there to repair a broken
TV, etc. Seldom is anything missing; the purpose is only to copy documents or download
information from a traveler's laptop computer. Sometimes there is little effort to conceal
the search. Other times it is more subtle. If done correctly, the traveler will not be
aware of the search.
Leaving sensitive government or company
information in your hotel room, even in a locked briefcase or the safe provided in your
room, is an invitation for material to be copied or photographed while you are out. Hotel
vaults are not much better. In most cases, foreign intelligence officers can gain access
to hotel lockboxes or vaults without you becoming aware of the compromise.
Never leave a laptop computer with sensitive
information on it in the room unattended. Keep it in your personal possession at all times
or don't take it on the trip. If you must take a laptop, use encryption to protect
sensitive files and perform regular backups to ensure no loss of vital information in case
Suitcase and attaché case locks may delay
the trained professional for a few minutes but will not protect your sensitive
information. Nevertheless, it is wise to keep your luggage locked whenever you are out of
the room. Although locks will not inhibit the professional thief or intelligence agent,
they will keep the curious maid honest. Curious hotel employees are even more likely to
remain honest if combination locks are set so that the combination for each piece of
luggage is different. For attaché cases with two combination locks, use different
combinations for each lock.
The only solution to the security problem is
to take as little sensitive information as possible when traveling overseas, and to carry
what you must take on your person, possibly on computer media. Computer diskettes and
CD-ROMs must also be carried with you at all times.
If you must carry sensitive information, the
following suggestions may be helpful.
- While asleep or in the shower, engage both the
dead bolt and the privacy latch or chain on the hotel room door. A hotel's emergency keys
can override the dead bolt locks, so the latch or chain is your principal source of
security. (Note: Many hotel rooms have a door to a connecting room. This is a potential
vulnerability, as these doors do not normally have a privacy latch or chain.)
- Utilize a portable or improvised burglar alarm
while asleep. Two ash trays and a water glass are quite effective as an alarm when placed
on the floor in front of the door into your room. Place a water glass in one ashtray and
balance the second ashtray on top of the glass. If a straight chair is available, place it
next to the door and put the ash tray/water glass alarm on the edge of the chair where it
will fall with enough racket to wake you.
- When leaving the room, make a mental or
written note of how your suitcase or other personal property that would not normally be
touched by the cleaning personnel was left. Any movement might suggest that others were in
the room to examine your belongings. The same procedure is even more effective to check
for surreptitious entry while you were asleep.
- Jewelry or other valuables should normally be
left at home, but you may need to protect a substantial amount of money. Guidelines for
protecting money from thieves are different from those for protecting sensitive
information from the local intelligence or security service. Money should not be kept on
your person. It should be kept in a safe in a local office or in the hotels safe
deposit box or safe. This is safer than a room safe and may also make the hotel liable for
any loss. Liability laws in many countries provide that the hotel is not liable for the
loss of guest property unless it is in the "care, custody and control of the
hotel." Additional protection may be gained by double enveloping all valuables,
initialing across the seams, and then taping all edges and seams (over the initials).
- If you determine that an item is missing,
conduct a thorough search prior to reporting the incident to hotel security. Do not expect
to receive a copy of the security report, as it is an internal document. The incident
should be reported to the local police, the security officer at the nearest U.S. Embassy
or Consulate, and your insurance carrier. Hotel security can provide a letter verifying
that you reported property missing.
Elsewhere in the Hotel
There are a number of areas of your hotel
where you are particularly vulnerable to theft.
- Rest Rooms: Female travelers should be careful
about placing purses on hangers on the inside of the lavatory doors or on the floor in
stalls -- two frequent locations for grab and run thefts. On occasion, unauthorized
persons use rest rooms for other types of theft or to deal drugs or engage in
- Public Telephones: Areas around public
telephones are often used by criminals to stage pickpocket activity or theft. Keep
briefcases and purses in view or "in touch" while using phones. Safeguard your
telephone credit card numbers. Criminals sometimes hang around public telephones to gather
credit card numbers and then sell the numbers for unauthorized use.
- Hotel Bars and Restaurants: Purse snatchers
and briefcase thieves are known to work hotel bars and restaurants waiting for unknowing
guests to drape these items on chairs or under tables, only to discover them missing as
they are departing. Keep items in view or "in touch". Be alert to scams
involving an unknown person spilling a drink or food on your clothing. An accomplice may
be preparing to steal your wallet, briefcase or purse.
- Pool or Beach Areas: These are fertile areas
for thieves to take advantage of guests enjoying recreation. Leave valuables in the hotel.
Safeguard your room key and camera. Sign for food and beverages on your room bill rather
than carry cash.
- Prostitutes take advantage of travelers around
the world through various ploys, including use of "knock out" drugs and theft
from the victim's room. Avoid engaging persons you do not know and refrain from inviting
them to your guest room.
Airports and Trains
Airports, railroad terminals and trains are
easy targets for pickpockets, thieves, and terrorist bombers. Unattended baggage is an
obvious risk. Checked baggage is also at risk and should never contain valuables such as a
camera or sensitive papers. It is not unusual for government and business travelers to
report broken suitcase locks and rearranged contents.
Theft from sleeping compartments on trains is
surprisingly common. Train thieves spray chemicals inside sleeping compartments to render
the occupant(s) unconscious in order to enter and steal valuables. Using this technique,
valuables can be stolen from under a sleeping persons pillow. A locked door may be
helpful but is no guarantee.
Laptop computers are a prime target for theft everywhere, but they
are especially vulnerable in airports. They are stolen for the value of the information on
them as well as for the value of the computer.
According to Safeware, an insurer of personal
computers, 10% of all laptop thefts occur in airports. Airports offer an inviting
atmosphere for thieves due to large crowds, hectic schedules, and weary travelers. Laptop
thefts commonly occur in places where people set them down -- at security checkpoints, pay
phones, lounges and restaurants, check-in lines, and restrooms.Two incidents at separate
European airports demonstrate the modus operandi of thieves operating in pairs to target
- Airport security at Brussels International
Airport reported that two thieves exploited a contrived delay around the security X-ray
machines. The first thief preceded the traveler through the security checkpoint and then
loitered around the area where security examines carry-on luggage. When the traveler
placed his laptop computer onto the conveyer belt of the X-ray machine, the second thief
stepped in front of the traveler and set off the metal detector. With the traveler now
delayed, the first thief removed the traveler's laptop from the conveyer belt just after
it passed through the X-ray machine and quickly disappeared.
- While walking around the Frankfurt
International Airport in Germany, a traveler carrying a laptop computer in his roll bag
did not notice a thief position himself to walk in front of him. The thief stopped
abruptly as the traveler bypassed a crowd of people, causing the traveler also to stop. A
second thief, who was following close behind, quickly removed the traveler's laptop
computer from his roll bag and disappeared into the crowd.
All travelers, both domestic and
international, should be alert to any sudden diversions when traveling, especially when
transiting transportation terminals. If victimized, travelers should report the thefts
immediately to the authorities and be able to provide the makes, model information, and
serial numbers of their laptop computers, or any other items of value. 1
Sensitive Equipment in
Sensitive equipment may be stolen so that it
can be copied through reverse engineering. For some purposes, it may be sufficient to only
gain access to the equipment for a brief period.
For example, a cleared company participated
in an air show that took place overseas. The company shipped over an operational $250,000
multi-mode radar system that can be used on fighter aircraft. At the conclusion of the air
show, the radar system was packaged for return shipping by company personnel, and the
radar assembly was actually bolted to the shipping container. The shipping container was
routed through a third country with the customs seals intact.
Upon being opened by company personnel, it
was discovered that the radar was no longer bolted to the shipping container. As a result,
the radar system was damaged beyond repair. It was determined that the radar was properly
bolted down at the time it was prepared for shipment. It also was determined that the
country that sponsored the air show was keenly interested in the radar's technology. It is
not known whether the intruder's failure to re-bolt the radar was an oversight or was done
deliberately to destroy evidence of whatever was done to examine the radar.2
Lesson learned: The company did not really
need to take the entire radar assembly to the air show. A mock-up without the internal
mechanisms could have been set up along with photographs of the internal components.
Offices of U.S. Government agencies and U.S.
businesses in foreign countries are vulnerable both to burglary and to theft of
information by local national employees.
For example, the Western European office of a
large American corporation was burglarized in an obvious case of industrial espionage.
Located on the sixth floor of a 12-story office building, it was entered from the outside
window ledge by breaking the window. The thieves ignored the company's expensive computers
and other valuable items and went directly to their target -- the company's marketing and
business data, client and business contact lists, and banking information.
Foreign offices of U.S. Government and
business organizations are staffed, in part, by local citizens. In many countries, some of
these employees cooperate voluntarily with the local security or intelligence service or
are pressured or coerced into doing so. In one allied Western European country, collecting
proprietary information from the offices of American and other foreign corporations with
offices in that country is known as "economic patriotism." Collected information
is provided routinely to local competitors of the U.S. companies. In many countries, local
national employees are also debriefed for assessment data about the American personnel.
Foreign intelligence interest is not
necessarily determined by an employees rank in the company. Researchers, key
business managers, and corporate executives can all be targets, but so can support
employees such as secretaries, computer operators, technicians, and maintenance people.
The latter frequently have good, if not the best, access to competitive information.
Additionally, their lower pay and rank may provide fertile ground for manipulation by an
Protection of sensitive information is very
difficult under these circumstances. Discussion of all the physical and technical security
requirements for protection of proprietary technologies and sensitive commercial
information is beyond the scope of this security guide.
Related Topic: Theft and "Dumpster Diving."
1. National Counterintelligence Center,
Counterintelligence News and Developments, March 1996.
2. James Norvell, "Assessing Foreign Collection
Trends," Security Awareness Bulletin, Number 1-98, Department of Defense