Leave No Trace (Higher-Risk Edition)

Aleppo, Syria. 2020.
  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimise campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors
Aleppo, Syria. 2020.

Keep your electronic devices clean

When it comes to information security, only carry in what you need. Ideally, use dedicated devices that have been specifically set up for travel. These devices should be free of the data that lives on your normal personal or work devices (emails, messages, photos, contacts, calendar schedule, notes, files, social media posts, browsing history, location history, et cetera).

Leave nothing of note

Avoid creating, carrying and storing hard copy documents. Where you do need to use hard copy documents, ensure they are appropriately protected. Once you’ve finished with a hard copy document, destroy it by burning it and disposing it down the sink. Do this with all written notes, printed bookings, tickets and receipts. Particularly receipts.

Damascus, Syria. 2020.

Avoid a payments trail

Use cash as much as possible for small purchases around town, particularly for transport and meals. Cash is better for the local shop owners and it leaves less of a trace of you and your activities. Your payment history can reveal preferences and patterns that can be used to target you. Use credit cards for major transactions, such as hotels and flights (that’s expected behaviour–otherwise it may be deemed suspicious if you use cash for everything).

Limit the use of app-based services

For the same reasons you might avoid using credit cards for local purchases, limit the use of app-based services for transport and food delivery. By doing so, you’ll be able to avoid creating a neatly packaged history of pickup and drop-off locations for transport. Similarly, you’ll be able to avoid providing delivery addresses for food delivery, not to mention food preferences and routines (delivery days and times).

Limit your social connections

Limit the breadth and depth of your social network. In this context, breadth refers to the number of people you meet and that know you exist. Depth refers to the extent of details that each person you meet learns about you.

Compartmentalise

Make a conscious effort to compartmentalise information and activities. As a simple example, your driver may know your destination, but doesn’t need to know who you’re meeting at that destination. As noted above, you can also compartmentalise your digital activities by using different devices and applications for different purposes.

Maaloula, Syria. 2020.

Be forgettable

There should be nothing about you that would cause another person to lock you away in their memory. Your physical appearance should not cause anyone to look twice. The conversations you have when in social settings should not make someone think “wow, that’s really interesting — I really want to know more about this person!”

Damascus, Syria. 2020

Avoid high surveillance areas

As a point of principle, try to avoid getting yourself in a video surveillance database.

  • Avoid locations most likely to have extensive video surveillance, particularly those locations where facial recognition technology is most likely to be used. Such locations include around government buildings, public transport stations and sensitive locations (public squares etc). Also consider avoiding high-end hotels and high-end shopping malls (these facilities probably won’t be surveilled by government technology, but government agencies will have access to the video recordings if required).
  • Avoid making or receiving phone calls on your hotel phone or using normal phone lines. Use the voice calling features on applications such as Signal or Wire instead.
  • Avoid activities where you need to register using your passport, particularly if this information is entered into a computer.

Limit contact with persons of interest

Persons of interest are more likely to be under surveillance by the domestic intelligence and security services. Some may also be surveilled by third-country intelligence services.

Stay out of local issues

Don’t intervene in local issues, particularly altercations. Just keep moving, regardless of what happens. If you feel strongly that you need to do something, get the attention of a passerby and ask them to intervene.

Damascus, Syria. 2020.

Either avoid or quickly de-escalate situations

Following from the point above, avoid altercations whenever possible. Don’t let any situation escalate to the point where it turns into an incident that attracts the attention of passersby. You don’t need to win arguments and you certainly don’t need to get into yelling matches. Stay calm, apologise, make reparations if needed, and get on with your day.

Be vague and sometimes a little deceptive

If asked for information about yourself or your work, be vague. As touched on above, make your life and work sound so uninteresting that it isn’t worth someone’s time and emotional energy to bother learning more about you.

Stay out of the digital memory of your environment

After spending time in any location, you’ll exchange messages and calls with people, take photos with them, and may post about each other on social media. By doing so, you’re now residing in the digital memory of your environment. Someone doesn’t need to try to remember who you are if interviewed by the authorities — they can show them a photo. Even if you use good security hygiene by deleting emails and messages on your own device, your contacts may not apply the same practices.

Damascus, Syria. 2020.

Wrap up

Leaving no trace is a good principle to follow if you plan to move in and out of higher-risk locations and want to stay off the radar (and out of the databases) of the local security and intelligence service. As with all advice, the recommendations contained in this article are contextual and need to be carefully tailored to your reasons for travel and your operating environment. Use what works in your current situation and file the rest away for other purposes.

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