US Intelligence Agencies To Americans Travelling Abroad: Trust No One, Use Burner Phones, They're All Out To Get You

from the just-because-you're-paranoid... dept

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has been going through something of an awkward phase the last few years. The Office, which is a part of the White House, and is supposed to direct and coordinate various parts of the intelligence community, has been trying to figure out how to be more open and “transparent” to the public since the Snowden documents began flowing. Given that historically the intelligence community has focused on being as secret as is humanly possible, it’s not very good at this whole transparency thing. And sometimes it’s just really, really awkward. Just try (really) to watch this video it put out on Wednesday, telling US travelers abroad to fear everyone and everything.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some good advice mixed in there, but it’s mixed in with some ridiculous claims, an overreaching level of paranoia, and some incredibly bad acting. The basic premise, though, is that wherever you go, even if you’re visiting a US ally country, basically every person you meet has an ulterior motive, and it’s to get your digital stuff. The border patrol guy who welcomes you to the country clicks a button that says “INITIATE SURVEILLANCE” (literally) and apparently suddenly every living human being in this foreign country now knows to spy on Frank.

He checks into his hotel, and the person at the front desk is friendly, but apparently having been tipped off by border patrol to spy on Frank, she immediately texts his room number to a sketchy guy. We know he’s sketchy because he wears a leather jacket. When Frank heads out of his hotel room, he puts his tablet in the room safe, and as soon as he’s gone, Mr. Sketchy comes in and opens the safe and downloads everything. To be clear: hotels are not very secure and people get electronics stolen all the time. And, yes, if you’re a serious target, people may target your electronics. Of course, many of those people may actually work for the US government. Isn’t that part of how the NSA hacks into various global companies? It seems like this video is giving up more US procedures than anything else.

Then the video just gets weirder. A smug asshole shows up claiming he’s someone who “knows better” and tells Frank not to bring so many electronic gadgets with him. He actually recommends getting a burner phone and a throwaway email address for travel overseas. Yes, this is part of the same US intelligence community that has talked about how burner phones have created problems for its surveillance efforts, though which these days also is pretty good at connecting burner phones to individuals by merging various databases together. Smug guy also says not to post on Facebook (or, rather, “Friend Basket” in the video) that you’ll be travelling overseas. Now, that’s also not necessarily a bad recommendation, but it depends on context quite a bit. If the fear is that you’re alerting foreigners to target you, given the earlier paranoia in the video, it’s unlikely that those targeting you are finding out because of your social media posts.

Then, the paranoia goes deeper. Frank meets a woman and they agree to go for drinks. Smug Jackass basically says that anyone that friendly to Frank must be evil. Then, he reminds Frank never to send a work email, even though he’s traveling for work. And then he actually says: “Besides, who’s got time for work? You’re traveling! Get out there! Live a little!” Remember that literally a minute earlier, Smug Guy was berating Frank for doing exactly that.

Yes, there are certainly some people where this kind of thing applies to them when travelling abroad. But this video isn’t likely to help them, and it applies to a fairly limited population of people. Meanwhile, this video really kinda reveals the paranoia with which the US intelligence community lives. They spy on absolutely everyone, so they assume that absolutely everyone is getting spied on everywhere as well. It’s also somewhat bizarre that they’re pushing disposable email and burner phones on people while warning about terrorists using the same.

The key messages: the US intelligence community is creepy and smug, and they want you to be deathly terrified of anyone you encounter in a foreign country.

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Comments on “US Intelligence Agencies To Americans Travelling Abroad: Trust No One, Use Burner Phones, They're All Out To Get You”

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Jason says:

intelligence community logic

If an American truly loved America, they would never want to go anywhere outside America. (“There are foreigners out there!”) Therefore, anyone who travels outside America must hate America and therefore needs to be surveilled at all times.

(PS. We need a budget increase to cover all that surveillance…)

Atkray (profile) says:

Re: Re:

No you are correct.

If people on list cannot_______________ (we’ll start with “come into our country”, but it could be anything).

Then the bigger the list the more people cannot_______________

Followed by, since so many people cannot do _______________anyway, we might as well get rid of _______________

It is the new workaround for that pesky constitution thingy.

Anonymous Coward says:

One-Way logic problem.

There is a terrible problem of logic in humanity in general.

Burner Phones also protect the innocent from bad actors.
People searching for terms are not always ignorant of that term.
People desiring privacy does not mean they are up to no good.

The fundamental purpose of having privacy is that that you are not judged on things that are stupid.
Who if your favorite sports team?
What is your favorite food?
Favorite actors/actresses?

People harm others over the simplest of differences in opinion. The reason for privacy is to help keep the self safe. It is important to safety that everyone NOT know my habits, numbers, & private details. Conversely, it is important that my significant other does know them!

Information develops knowledge, knowledge develops power!

Padpaw (profile) says:

Scare tactics to keep people home?

This is amusing as if any non americans did this in America they would be charged with suspected domestic terrorism.

Since if you have something to hide you are clearly going to be targeted by the state.

Maybe they are trying to get Americans arrested in foreign nations for trumped up charges. keep them home instead of letting them go out and learn dangerous ideas.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Scare tactics to keep people home?

That was my thought.

Don’t leave the propaganda bubble! And if you do, be a jingoistic jackass to insure you get robbed just on principle!

You can’t help but cringe when you see some of your countrymen abroad. I think that is true for every nationality though.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Only spy-women chat up geeky Americans.

Other than the UK, and places where I could expect culture shock (e.g. Japan or Saudi Arabia) the paranoia and predatory behavior of the US’ agencies regarding me is far more worrying than most of the places I’d travel.

At the same time, if I had proprietary information (e.g. business secrets or client data), then of course it’d be sufficiently encrypted.

But I bet if it’s encrypted enough to keep the NSA out of my business, it’s probably encrypted enough to keep any other spies out of it as well.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

It's not new, it's just how USG people think

In the 90s I used to go to UN-related meetings in Geneva a lot.

There was always a guy from the State Dept. there to watch over the “US delegation” (most of whom represented private firms).

Every Friday he’d tell us to let State know everywhere we went outside our hotel over the weekend – not for infosec reasons, but because it’s a “foreign country” and we could get into all kinds of trouble. We could get arrested and have no rights, not like at home in the US.

This was in Switzerland, the child-proofed chocolate-coated rubber room of Western Europe. Far safer than any place in the US – the main danger was overdosing on cheese.

But I think they really meant it.

There’s something about the mentality of people who go to work for the US government – they really, truly, think all them furriners in nasty, terrible places like Switzerland, the UK, Austrialia, Japan (Japan!) are lawless hellholes without Good Old Fashioned Merican Democracy where people will be skinned alive for blinking at the wrong time.

It’s a kind of paranoia and fear of the strange.

But it’s real, and sincere.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: To be fair, this attitude was more valid when visiting the second world during the Cold War.

The Soviets were just as worried about capitalist plots as we were about communist plots, and there was an intense spy game going on where tourists and businessmen with useful connections were attached and then influenced to do their part in collection.

Both sides had their own dirty tricks and both sides had little respect for the subjects they’d bribe or extort.

In the spook sector, it’s industrial espionage that is renowned for being particularly nasty. Nations often recognize they have to live with each other, but rival companies would love nothing better than to see their competitors buried underground and the earth under their factories salted.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: To be fair, this attitude was more valid when visiting the second world during the Cold War.

Nations often feel that way too (bury and salt), they just realize they can’t get away with it without immense cost and risk to themselves.

The same goes for companies operating under the rule of law – much as they might like to obliterate their competitors, they can’t get away with it.

Matthew A. Sawtell (profile) says:

Re: It's not new, it's just how USG people think

From a corporate standpoint in the 1990s, I got similar lectures as well – especially design engineering work. Had an ex-CIA spook talk about how Air France planes were bugged and similar stories about hotels in London and elsewhere, with the governments in the region passing off ‘trade secrets’ to corporate entities in their borders. Older folks in the lectures would joke about earlier warnings of the ‘stereotypical Japanese Tourist’ taking photos of everything. Trouble is, there is a grain of truth to these stories – there is a degree of spycraft that occurs every day, from the mundane to the exotic. If anyone is in Washington D.C. – take a visit to the International Spy Museum to get an idea.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Re: Re: It's not new, it's just how USG people think

Sure, industrial espionage is as old as industry, and espionage is as old as states (or older).

But the warnings we got in the ’90s weren’t much about that – it was mostly “you’ll be arrested on made-up charges and have no rights”, etc. They made as if they were genuinely concerned with our safety.

In Switzerland.

(As far as I know, nobody took their advice, and did as they pleased on weekends without telling anyone. We chuckled about their nannying…privately.)

Matthew A. Sawtell (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: It's not new, it's just how USG people think

Depending on the company, some of them had legit concerns – given the reliability of some client nations. Heck there is a good article about a fellow by the name of Max who works as a naval ‘repo-man’ when people and assets run a foul with the locals:

Anonymous Coward says:

So, those burner phones, where from ?

This is preparation for Step 2:

“I’m from the government and I’m here to hand you your very own government-issued burner phone to keep you safe when travelling. You can be absolutely sure this burner phone is safe to use and free from nasty foreign malware! Enjoy your trip. Rest assured we will be doing all we can to watch over you and keep you safe!”

Anonymous Coward says:

After reading the article, this is exactly the impression I came away with. They are asking you to protect your digital possessions in a way that would cause themselves a few problems.

There is a reason that the public does not trust it’s government here in the US and this article puts it on display between the lines. This is the level of paranoia functioning at present in the US, by our government.

Anonymous Coward says:

Go to canada ,when you come back get your phone, laptop taken off you ,or get detained at random for doing nothing wrong .
Heres the truth ,the european tourism industry is just a front,for marxist spys ,Get smart the movie is a documentary .
Meanwhile in the real world the nsa is free to spy on
anyone including the european parliament or the german
chancellor or any private company .
No one in europe is innocent or is just trying to do a
job or bring up a family .
Why would any american try to travel any way ,
just go to disneyland or hollywood .
Maybe the nsa assumes every other country runs a
a massive surveillance network
with 1000,s of employee,s .

Anonymous Coward says:

This is only the first step in the plan...

1. Convince Americans traveling abroad to use burner phones and throw away e-mail addresses.
2. Track phone calls and e-mails.
3. Upon re-entry into the US, arrest Americans for being dirty rotten terrorists (they are using burner phones and fake e-mail addresses, so they must be guilty).
4. Increase Terrorist arrest statistics and request double the budget due to the huge increase in domestic born terrorists..

5. Profit… chaching

That One Guy (profile) says:

That's almost impressive

They managed to fit that much projection into a single video, that takes some real skill.

‘We do all of this(or at least we would if we could), so we’re sure that other governments do it too. As such you should absolutely protect yourself using methods that would get you treated and/or investigated as a suspicious individual if you did it here, because Only Criminals Have Anything To Hide.’

Pretty much all the ‘advice’ given would be much more fitting if told to someone crazy enough to want to visit the US.

Don’t bring your actual phone, it’s one whim away from being stolen and searched.

Don’t bring your electronic devices, laptops or whatnot unless you want those stolen and searched as well.

Be careful about using unsecured connections for anything valuable, there’s any number of agencies that like to grab anything and everything they can, just because they can.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Re: That much projection into a single video

It’s so over-the-top and obvious projection…I wonder if that was the intent.

Did some Snowdenish wise guy in the USG script and produce this to implicitly ridicule USG policy (and warn foreigners)?

Or am I ignoring Hanlon’s Anti-razor (Never attribute to beneficence that which is adequately explained by incompetence)?

Anonymous Coward says:

So if the US government both believes that foreigners carrying burner phones and emails are potential terrorists, and advises Americans traveling abroad to carry burner phones, does that mean it will willingly permit other countries to arrest American visitors carrying burner phones as potential terrorists?

I can’t help imagine this being the thought process of the knuckleheads who decided this propagandist junk was a good idea.

“It’s an outrage! Americans might be letting foreign governments mine their data when they’re abroad!”
“How dare they? Mining American data and holding onto it is our job!”

Matthew A. Sawtell (profile) says:

Re: Re: Hm... Burner Phones and Pre-Paid Credit Cards is a good idea

Nice try on attempting to shift the topic – but no. When it comes to Americans travelling abroad – there are precautions that need to be taken, period.

As for the attempted misdirect – there is a greater likely hood of an American Tourist getting robbed or killed than a Foreign Tourist getting stopped by a State Trooper after committing a traffic violation:

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Hm... Burner Phones and Pre-Paid Credit Cards is a good idea

As for the attempted misdirect – there is a greater likely hood of an American Tourist getting robbed or killed than a Foreign Tourist getting stopped by a State Trooper after committing a traffic violation:

I don’t know if you believe otherwise, but your reference to one such incident does not prove your claim.

Matthew A. Sawtell (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Hm... Burner Phones and Pre-Paid Credit Cards is a good idea

You are correct, multiple incidents should be cited. The three below are from three countries that have been in the news the last couple of years:



Great Britain:

Flargle Blargle says:

0.9/10 on IMDB

I love how the American tourist is portrayed as a bumbling, doughy chucklehead and the smart guy as a smug know it all asshole that you just want to punch in the face. Then there’s the stereotypical ruggedly handsome spy-thief with uber-tech… and the ever so hot evil receptionist/elevator chick…

Come on Murica, this is embarrassing…..

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