Americans heading to Sochi, Russia, for the Winter Olympics are being warned that privacy is not a right in the host country and all their electronic communications will likely be monitored.
The United States Computer Emergency Response Team (US-CERT), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, is recommending the use of electronic devices that are devoid of sensitive information and can be left behind, if Russian authorities decide to confiscate the equipment.
To avoid problems, personal smartphones, tablets and laptops should be left at home. Americans should only use devices bought or borrowed for the trip and can be wiped clean when leaving the country to avoid taking malware back home.
In the U.S., revelations of the National Security Agency's gathering of data from phone calls and Internet activity has sparked a nationwide debate on privacy versus the nation's anti-terrorist efforts. In Russia, such discussions are moot, since the government has the undisputed right to intercept and store all electronic communications.
Under Russian law, the country's state security organization, FSB, can block any communication sent electronically, capture all phone communications, intercept Internet traffic, and store all collected data, including actual recordings.
In addition, Russia's national telecom operator, Rostelecom, is reportedly installing technology, so the government can easily use keywords to search and filter communications, US-CERT said.
"Therefore, it is important that attendees understand communications while at the Games should not be considered private," the agency said.
Encrypting data on a device won't help, because Russian authorities are free to confiscate any computer or smartphone containing encrypted data, when a person leaves the country. There are no restrictions for people taking devices into Russia.
Russia is also home to some of the world's most sophisticated cybercriminals, so experts on Wednesday had a few more suggestions.
Assume that public Wi-Fi has been hacked and data moving over the network will be intercepted.
"Id recommend that travelers purchase a 3G prepaid data plan for the duration of the stay in Sochi and exclusively use it," Bogdan Botezatu, senior e-threat analyst for Bitdefender, said. "Free Wi-Fi may come with a price."
Also, visitors should head to a bank each morning and withdraw enough cash for the day, Botezatu said. This will avoid becoming a victim of Russia's many gangs that steal credit card numbers by installing readers on ATMs and other devices that scan payment cards.
"The less the card is exposed, the smaller the chances of skimming," he said.
Because malware infection is high in Russia, people with laptops should assume their devices have been hacked and "all data on your device will be exfiltrated off the device," Drew Porter, senior security analyst for consulting firm Bishop Fox, said.
Extreme caution should be taken when connecting to a corporate network. In fact, do not connect unless arrangements have been made in advance with security and network teams at home.
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