In my last blog, I recounted stories of my experience with surveillance and counter surveillance during my career with the U.S. Secret Service. But now I want to bring it down to the non-Presidential level.

A recent report from the U.S. State Department explained that all Americans traveling abroad should be aware of the fact that they could be targeted by an intelligence agency, security service or even a competitor.

Surveillance Abroad Is Common – Be Alert and Informed

Having traveled to over 100 countries in all regions of the world as a senior security official, I can confirm that surveillance is common. And individuals who conduct sensitive business negotiations and operations are high on the list of targets for surveillance in major cities abroad.

What Exactly Is Surveillance?

Surveillance takes many forms – from electronic listening devices to cameras inside hotel rooms – but no matter the method, the goal tends to be to catch someone in a compromising position, gain a leg up on business negotiations or see with whom you interact. Traditional surveillance tactics include physically following an individual, tasking drivers to monitor where you go, listening to phone conversations and taking photos of you to identify timelines, routines and contacts.

What can you do as someone who may have private security, but not the full backing of the federal government, to help prevent yourself from being surveilled while traveling overseas?

Four Ways to Protect Yourself and Your Information – and That of Others

To limit the risk that your personal and corporate conversations will be compromised, consider taking the following steps.

  1. Be Wary of Purchases of Electronic Devices – and Gifts: If you receive an electronic gift while overseas, be suspicious. Once I was given a gift bag full of items and one of the electronic devices inside was capable of tracking and installing hidden files to any computer I had connected it to, which would enable future intrusions.
  2. Write an Action Plan – I would not recommend or encourage counter surveillance for private individuals or families in most situations. However, I agree with the State Department’s advice to document a plan of action if surveillance is suspected or detected. A good plan would include tactics that can be employed to make the surveillance more difficult, such as a change of routines, meeting locations, clothing or purposely altering forms of transportation. Notifications should also be made to colleagues or business associates who may be traveling on related business.
  3. Inform the U.S. Embassy or Consulate – If you detect – or even suspect – you are being surveilled, the most effective countermeasure is to notify the U.S. Embassy or Consulate. They have the interest, resources and professional staff to appropriately deal with the situation. They can cross-reference similar incidents and leverage networks to identify the likely reasons and personnel responsible for the activity.
  4. Sanitize Your Electronic Devices Upon Your Return: If you suspect any surveillance activity while overseas, I highly recommend that upon your return, you have a trusted security organization scan or forensically analyze any electronic devices you, your family or your staff members brought, bought or used on the trip. If any of these were compromised without your knowledge, not only is the information on those devices at risk, but additional surveillance could be conducted remotely.

For more information on managing risks when you travel – or any private client and family office security or investigative matter of concern to you – feel free to contact me at mike.white@hillardheintze.com.