The Gap Year Guide to Online Safety Abroad

The build-up to your gap year abroad is usually characterised by a volatile mix of crippling nerves, dizzying euphoria and blind panic.

But along with the brain-meltingly bewildering experiences of planning your trip comes the more mundane stuff that still needs sorting out. Things like travel insurance. Health checks. Work visas.

Among the less rock’n’roll things you need to get sorted is protection against cyber threats. If you’re like most gappers you’ve probably spent more time worrying about getting infected with viruses from humans than computers on your gap year, but this is something you really do need to guard against.

When you’re backpacking around New Zealand with your netbook or laptop, surfing the web from a hostel in Mumbai or using an internet cafe in downtime La Paz, you’re probably exposing yourself to more risks than you would back home.

Seriously, it’s a bit of a minefield.

So what can you do to avoid getting hacked in Hungary? How can you avoid downloading malware in Malawi? How can you avoid getting phished in the Philippines?

It’s easy. Just read our Gap Year Guide to Internet Safety Abroad and you should be fine…

Before You Go

If you’re planning to take a netbook or laptop on your gap year, the first thing you should do is go on a sensitive data removal spree; get rid of any private information stored on your device that doesn’t need to be there – stuff like online banking info, credit card numbers, blog login details and social media passwords.

Next, run a virus check to make sure your device is clean. Buy the top virus protection package you can. Alternatively, if you’re a backpacker on a budget, make sure you install the best free antivirus software you can.

Make sure you also install a firewall on your computer. Get it set up and ready to roll. Then ensure you save a portable internet browser – like Google Chrome Portable or Firefox Portable – onto a USB drive/memory stick. Try to only use this when using the internet on a public computer.

Be certain to password protect all of your electronic devices with strong (and different) passwords that use a combination of numbers, symbols and upper/lower case letters. There are actually whole guides online dedicated solely to the topic of creating less-hackable passwords.

Obviously, if you’re reading this guide it’s more likely that your device won’t fall victim to a digital nasty. But be sure to back-up your data onto a hard drive before you set off so you don’t lose everything if your device does get infected.

On the Road

Once you hit the backpacker trail you’ll probably want to fire up your laptop to start blogging and telling your friends on Facebook about your trip.

But before using Wi-Fi connections check the Wi-Fi account name and be certain that the network is encrypted. Cyber crims have been known to set up fake Wi-Fi accounts that can give them easy access to a device’s information – even credit card details if you’re asked to pay for the Wi-Fi.

Try to avoid letting anyone use your devices or connect to them with a USB or portable device – scammers have been known to install viruses and other nasty malware using this method.

Beware of pop-ups when you go online. Many gappers get targeted in backpacker hostels when they connect to the web. How? A pop-up window appears telling them that they need to update a familiar software programme.

If you click on this, malware is installed on your device which can monitor all your in-device activity. The malicious software can even activate your webcam! Basically, don’t ever click on a pop-up, even to close it – instead just ‘force quit’ the browser.

Don’t fall into bad habits while you’re away – try to run regular scans for viruses when you have a strong and sustainable Wi-Fi connection.

Sharing the Web

Of course, not everyone takes a netbook/laptop with them on their gap year, and sometimes you just end up using public computers. Internet cafes have been around for decades (well, two) and have helped millions of gappers stay in touch with the news and memes from back home.

But internet cafes can be a hotbed of digital pitfalls! In addition to viruses, a known tactic on public computers is the installation of something called ‘key logging’ software. Essentially, these are malicious programmes that record everything that’s typed in by the user – potentially providing hackers with all the logins to your email, blog, social networks and banking profile. Bad times.

What can you do to avoid this? Circumvent the internet cafe or backpacker hostel computer’s browser by using a portable internet browser (remember this from earlier?).

If you have to use a public computer make sure you confirm with the owner that the computers have the most up-to-date anti-virus/anti-spam/anti-everything software. Never enter any sensitive/personal info, open a new browser to go online, use Gmail for your email (as all the information is encrypted) and make sure you sign out of every secure website manually.

When you’re finishing your online session, it’s also a good idea to clear the browser’s history menu, cache and cookies.

Getting Back Home

In the same way that you could have easily picked up a human virus from a ‘romantic’ encounter in Sydney after one too many fizzy pops and not know it, your computer could easily have picked up a cyber virus without displaying any obvious symptoms.

Once you’re back home it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security. Don’t. The best thing you can do post-gap year is to assume that you have picked up some dirty trojan or rogueware and run a full check. Do the complete virus scan before your start saving personal data on your device again.

This might all sound a little paranoid. You might even decide you’re better off not taking any electronic device with you at all!

But in reality all this boils down to is just being sensible. Travelling is amazing, but obviously it opens you up to risks you wouldn’t face back home. All you need to do is use your common sense – plus a few techie tips – and you should be fine!

1 Comment

  • Celina

    April 22, 2013

    Wow, this was really helpful! I’m on my gap year at the moment and leaving for Europe in may 🙂

    Thanks for the tips!

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