You're traveling in China on business, and after checking into your hotel room you decide to grab a bite at a local restaurant. You're not planning to work, so you leave your laptop on the dresser, lock the door, and exit, feeling confident that your possessions are safe.
An hour and half later you return and note that all your stuff, including the laptop, is just where you left it. Everything seems fine, and you go about your business, conducting meetings with potential clients over the next few days before returning home.
But everything is not fine. While you were out to dinner that first night, someone entered your room (often a nominal hotel staffer), carefully examined the contents of your laptop, and installed spyware on the computer -- without your having a clue.
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The result? Exposure of information, including customer data, product development documentation, countless emails, and other proprietary information of value to competitors and foreign governments. Perhaps even, thanks to the spyware, there's an ongoing infection in your corporate network that continually phones home key secrets for months or years afterward.
Because so many users never detect that they've been compromised and few report the issue publicly, it's not clear how common this sort of spying is, but it does happen, say cyber security experts. In fact, you should simply assume your computer will be breached if you go to high-risk countries such as China to conduct business, says Israel Martinez, a private-sector board member at the U.S. National Cyber Security Council, a defense industry group.
Cyber attacks overseas can happen in a variety of ways. In May 2012, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, issued an intelligence note saying recent analysis from government agencies shows that "malicious actors" were going after travelers abroad. There were recent instances of travelers' laptops being infected with malicious software while they were using hotel Internet connections, the report noted.
Beware these high-risk regions for cyber attacks
"We have found that travelers going to countries in Asia, the Russian Federation, the Baltic states, and even parts of South America have their systems attacked and most likely breached while abroad," says Jerry Irvine, CIO at IT outsourcing provider Prescient Solutions and a member of the National Cyber Security Partnership, an organization established to develop shared strategies and programs to better secure critical information infrastructure in the United States.
"While these things happen in the U.S., the difference is that, in addition to normal criminal activity, these countries also have government-sanctioned cyber espionage to back these thieves," Irvine says.
China and Russia are the two countries most frequently identified as being high risks, notes Emilian Papadopoulos, chief of staff at Good Harbor Security Risk Management, a security consultancy. Other high-risk countries include those with significant cyber capabilities, those known to conduct cyber espionage, and those known for corporate espionage and stealing business secrets and intellectual property, Papadopoulos says. "Countries with significant state control of private industry, especially in telecommunications, may also be higher risk," he says.