Risks During Foreign Travel

Risks During
Foreign Travel


You Are the Target

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 technique.
  • 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 public transportation.
  • 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 staff.

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 not.

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 security office.
  • 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



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