The Sabre Breach: How to Keep Your Travel Plans Private

The Sabre breach has to shake you. Apparently millions of hotel and airline bookings may have been hoovered out of the onetime American Airlines subsidiary, probably by the same gang of China state sponsored cybercriminals who are said to have been behind many other huge recent breaches at United, the US Office of Personnel Management, Anthem, and many more.

Exact details of the Sabre breach are, as always, sparse.   Said the company in a statement: “We recently learned of a cybersecurity incident, and we are conducting an investigation into it now. At this time, we are not aware that this incident has compromised sensitive protected information, such as credit card data or personally identifiable information, but our investigation is ongoing.”

American Airlines is apparently investigating if the hackers backed into the AA computers via Sabre. The two companies are said to share some computer infrastructure.

Even without the extra AA data, the Sabre data haul alone could be in the billions of travel records.  Then add in an apparent – and possibly huge breach of passenger records at United.  Almost certainly your information is in this very large mix.  Should you be worried?

What is obvious is that somebody – and most fingers point to China – is building an enormous database on America’s citizenry that comprises health records, employment records, personal details, and now quite possibly extensive travel records.

Nobody presently has any clue what the intent of the information gatherers is.  That has to make us all worry.

There also are obvious – deeply troubling – uses to a storehouse of travel plans. These records are gold to anybody who wants to track spies, suspected spies, handlers, and – say – M&A artists.

What can you do to protect the privacy of your travel data?  Not very much. That’s the sad truth.

But there are small steps we can take to conceal our flight and hotel plans.

In bygone years – pre 9/11 – many celebrities and even some ultra rich and executives routinely traveled under fake names.  They checked into hotels under pseudonyms and they flew under similar.

That just is not viable today, at least not for commercial air when the TSA demands positive ID and an airline ticket issued in the name on the ID.

Could a high-roller fool the system by buying a cheap SFO to LAX flight, showing that ticket and his/her real ID to TSA…then discarding that tickets and pulling out a ticket to Newark in the name of Daffy Duck?

Probably.  But for how long? And how many of us want to suffer the expense just to cover up our wanderings?

And it wouldn’t work at all for international travel.

For those who crave privacy, private planes are the only real option – and for many who want this privacy, the price is not a barrier.  When mum has to be the word, go private.

That’s one way to foil the breachers,

What about self-defense in hotels?

I cannot remember the last time I was not asked to produce a photo ID to check into a hotel. Why?

There apparently is no body of law requiring hotels in the US to verify a guest’s identity with a photo ID.

Of course, hotels – ever wary of credit card fraud – want to believe checking IDs will reduce fraud (has it? Of course not).

But that does not give them the right to demand I prove my identity to claim my bed. Or sometimes just to walk into the lobby.

Maybe we should all just stop playing along with the hotels’ identify demand – especially since there are no good reasons to believe hotels are good securers of our information (from ID to credit card data).

Just say no.

The only way to protect oneself from an unknown adversary who is sucking up as much information as he can is to get stingy about leaving traces of it, especially in places that do not need it – and, for me, in travel the obvious places that have no real need for a lot of identifying data is hotels.

 

How to Read TripAdvisor

What I have written in the past, many times, about how to safely navigate TripAdvisor just does not work anymore.  That is because – unless my eyes deceive me – I am seeing an unprecedented avalanche of false positive reviews written by hotel sales managers, GMs, even cooks (excuse me, chefs) – or their friends and co-conspirators.

Which has prompted my rethink of how a savvy consumer needs read TripAdvisor.

My guess: we are seeing a perverse outcome of the old management saw, what gets measured gets done.  Tell a cook that he will hit the bricks if his TripAdvisor rating stays in the gutter and, guess what, it gets lifted. How? The fastest way is to cheat.

Ditto a sales manager or GM who is taking guff from asset managers.  The latter should be peeved when a hotel that, say, has claimed to be “world class” cannot even manage to hold the top spot in a small tertiary market that is unpopulated by the perennial all stars (Aman, Four Seasons, etc).  If you cannot beat nobody, you aren’t word class, QED, thus the screaming – threats probably of bonuses withheld or firings – and then along come the fake reviews.

How? That’s easy. A struggling cook might form a mutual defense alliance with cooking school classmates. All sworn to secrecy. But as need arises – to counter a few bad reviews – they weigh in with glowing comments and the deed is done. The negative reviews are buried under the weight of fake positives.

Sales managers and GMs can do likewise in their circles.

Other GMs probably are just posting their own fakes, using the many Internet appliances we all have and accessing TripAdvisor via any of the many public WiFi networks at coffee shops, stores, restaurants and, yes, hotels of course.

Set up a handful of email addresses at the free services and you are halfway to a bank of bogus TripAdvisor accounts.

TripAdvisor of course says its armies of machines are ever alert for fakes and will track them down. Punishments range up to placement of “A large red penalty notice, explaining that the property’s reviews are suspicious may appear on the listing page.”  I believe I have seen that only once.

I believe I should see it a lot more often.

Mind you, I still insist: TripAdvisor is the best place to get credible commentary about hotels.  It is vastly better than professional travel writing – just about all those reviews result from typically undisclosed “comped” (free) trips. As for bloggers, forget about it. The FTC is looking to crack down on undisclosed blogger compensation, including freebies,  but so far the blogosphere is a wild west of corruption and mendacity when it comes to hotel write ups.

That is why you need to know how to carefully – smartly – read TripAdvisor reviews.

First: discard the outliers.  Some reviews are just too positive or too negative.  When I see “Chef XYZ should have his own restaurant in Manhattan” – and said cook would struggle for acclaim in Manhattan, Kansas – I know it was written by his mom.

Ditto for a review of a hotel – one that fares well overall – that finds no good whatsoever and insists there are bedbugs, mold, theft, and a cavalcade of bad things.  Is this reviewer lying? Maybe, maybe not.  But even if it’s the truth, perhaps the establishment just had an epicly bad day that won’t likely be repeated.

Look for patterns. When the same things – positive or negatives – are said many times they probably are true.

Which leads to the next precaution: if there are under 100 reviews – or perhaps you want a higher number; 1000 is reasonable – stop right there.  The data set is too small to be reliable.  There is truth in numbers when it comes to online reviews.

Now for the new advice: ignore all reviews written by posters with under 10 reviews. Just don’t read them.

In looking at a particular hotel that has been climbing in its ranking, I noticed that of the most recent 10 reviews, four were written by posters with 5, 4, 1, and 5 total reviews. They also had not posted photos.

All fakes? I do not know of course.  But were I spending my money on a hotel room, I’d bet they are fakes – and would ignore them accordingly.

My hope of course is that TripAdvisor wakes up its algorithms, puts its machines on high alert, and begins a search and destroy mission for hotels that are stuffing the ballot box.
As travelers we need TripAdvisor – but we need a TripAdvisor that we can count on.