If Zika, political instability and contaminated water weren’t enough, U.S. intelligence officials are warning Americans traveling to the August Olympic Games in Rio and other destinations abroad that proprietary information stored on electronic devices is at high risk for theft by spies and cyber criminals who are increasingly targeting global events as troughs rich in valuable intelligence.
Bill Evanina, the nation’s chief counter-intelligence executive, is urging travelers to carry “clean’’ devices, free of potentially valuable archives that could be tapped for economic advantage, personal data or security information.
Just as the Olympics draw the world’s most talented athletes, Evanina said the games and other international events represent a “great playground’’ for government intelligence services and criminals, if only because of the “sheer number of devices.’’
A little more than a month before the Rio games and in the midst of the summer travel season, the U.S. government is launching a multimedia campaign Wednesday to advise travelers of the increasing threat. The program, “Know the Risk; Raise Your Shield,” warns in part that foreign security services and criminals are tracking visitors’ movements through their mobile phones and are able to control such things as internal microphones remotely, often without the users’ knowledge.
“When you travel abroad, assume that your personal information will be breached,’’ Evanina said.
Though the campaign is aimed at all U.S. travelers abroad, the approaching Olympics, which traditionally draws thousands of U.S. visitors, offer a specific focus of concern for authorities.
As part of the U.S. government’s awareness campaign, Evanina, through the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, is advising Americans traveling abroad, regardless of their destination and purpose, to take a variety of precautions.
• Leave unnecessary devices at home.
• Back up data on devices in use and leave those copies in secure locations at home.
• Change passwords at regular intervals during travel and on return.
• Avoid prolonged sessions on local Wi-Fi networks.
• Submit company devices for examination on return for presence of malware.
National security agencies raised similar concerns in advance of the 2008 games in China and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, as both countries represent the U.S.’s most aggressive cyber adversaries. Prior to the 2014 Sochi games, for example, the Department of Homeland Security warned that “all communications and files” stored on personal electronic devices were vulnerable to interception.
Brazil, while not considered such an adversary, nevertheless will likely draw intelligence units from other countries and outside criminal elements all seeking to mine the global event that attracts top government leaders and a constellation of Wall Street and corporate executives, Evanina said.
Ray Mey, a former FBI official who has managed security operations at Olympics in Salt Lake City and Torino, Italy, said that businesses may be more inclined to bolster their cyber defenses in places like China and Russia, even though Rio is expected to be used as an information collection and recruitment opportunity.
“Major sponsor corporations use the Olympics as a platform to invite guests and to discuss business collaboration,” Mey said. “The hotels are bugged and high-level executives are targeted for compromise.”
Michael Vatis, a former FBI cybersecurity official, said that it is increasingly common for Americans to take “clean” laptops or other personal devices with them abroad to avoid the espionage risk.
“Companies and individuals are definitely more aware of the risk when it comes to traveling to countries such as China or Russia, and so business travelers are more apt to take clean devices when visiting those countries as opposed to, say, the (United Kingdom) or Germany,” he said. “But other companies’ policies more generally require the use of clean devices on any foreign trip, in recognition that even U.S. allies engage in industrial espionage against U.S. companies.”