In 2015, when President Obama was scheduled to attend the United Nations General Assembly held in in New York City, he broke a decades-long tradition when he changed his hotel plans prior to the event.
Previously, U.S. presidents and other high-ranking government officials had always stayed at the Waldorf Astoria hotel while visiting New York City. This hotel is known as one of the best hotels in the world. Frequent guests include celebrities and dignitaries from around the globe.
Waldorf Astoria | Image courtesy of The Denver Post.
However, prior to the president’s planned stay, the hotel was sold by Hilton Worldwide Holdings to a company called Anbang Insurance Group. Now, you probably haven’t heard of Anbang — it isn’t exactly a household name like Hilton.
Anbang is a Chinese holding company with direct ties to many elite Chinese citizens and government officials. In fact, according to the Financial Times, “Anbang is one of China’s most politically connected companies. Wu Xiaohui, who founded the insurance group in 2004, is married to the granddaughter of Deng Xiaoping, China’s former leader.”
After purchasing the hotel, the company completed major renovations, which caused many guests to raise security concerns. While U.S. officials never admitted to surveillance and eavesdropping concerns, there is no question this is likely the No. 1 reason the president changed his travel plans.
Voyeurism at Home
It’s common knowledge that if you are an American traveling in China, there is a good chance your hotel room is under some sort of surveillance. However, most people never thought they would have to worry about these same security concerns in America just because a Chinese company happens to own a hotel.
Clearly, those people were wrong.
With that in mind, I want to share with you four travel security tips, whether you are staying overseas for business or just taking a weekend trip with your family:
- Find out who owns the hotel. Before you book a hotel — whether overseas or in the U.S. — do a quick internet search to determine what company owns the hotel and where it is located. If you are visiting countries such as China or Russia (or even France), there is a pretty big chance you will be under some sort of surveillance no matter what. The bottom line is spying takes place all over the world. But it’s still a good idea to do a little research on the hotel before making a reservation to minimize the security risks.
- Take everything with you. It doesn’t matter whether you are staying internationally or domestically, expect hotel staff to have access to your room. This means you should always take your electronics with you when you leave your room. These devices contain a ton of private information about you and your travel plans, so you should keep them with you at all times. This includes any valuables, which is why I recommend leaving any important belongings at home if you don’t really need them on your trip. For example, definitely leave your family heirloom ring in a safe place while you are gone.
- Stay on guard everywhere. Whether you are traveling for business or pleasure, you should always act as though public spaces in hotels — conference rooms and restaurants — have surveillance, whether it’s video (cameras) or audio (listening devices). Frankly, even in nonhotel restaurants overseas, the server could be trying to learn information about you. You might be just an everyday traveler, but criminals and foreign intelligence officers are always looking for easy marks.
- Be wary of customs. When traveling abroad, be careful with what information you share with customs agents. If they ask to inspect your laptop, you really have no choice but to hand it over. The thing is they could easily be taking it to a back office and copying your data. This is why it’s critical to have strong passwords on your electronic devices. In addition, don’t share specific travel plans such as which sites you plan on visiting. The less people know, the better your security will be.
Traveling inevitably opens you up to security vulnerabilities, but these four steps will help you stay safe when you stay away from home.
The biggest thing is if you don’t need a specific item, it’s best to leave it at home — where you should also have security measures in place to keep your belongings safe.