Cybersecurity groups and Western nations are warning athletes about digital surveillance for next month’s Winter Olympic Games in China, advising them to leave their personal devices at home.
The focus is on whether the tens of thousands of foreign athletes, dignitaries, and journalists will be safe from China’s vast collection of surveillance tools.
Participants in the Olympics will operate in a bubble separated from the rest of the population, to prevent the Coronavirus from spreading into China, which has a strict zero-Covid policy.
Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found a vulnerability in the virus-monitoring app required by all Olympic attendees. The flaw could lead to personal data including health information and voicemails being exposed.
Beijing organisers were notified in early December, Citizen Lab said, but they did not respond.
According to Jeffrey Knockel, “China has a history of using encryption technology to censor and spy on its citizens.”
Therefore, we must ask whether the encryption in this app was deliberately sabotaged for surveillance purposes or whether it was the result of developer negligence.”
China denies cybersecurity threat
Moreover, Internet 2.0, a cybersecurity firm based in Canberra, warned that the official Games software — such as a VPN and an anti-virus program — from two of the event’s Chinese tech sponsors may gather user data without their permission.
Beijing’s Olympic Organizers responded to cyber-threat allegations by saying that there is no evidence for them, adding that “relevant information is used only by the Olympic and Winter Olympics”.
Additionally, the International Olympic Committee dismissed Citizen Lab’s allegations, citing assessments conducted by two reputable cybersecurity organisations that “confirmed no critical vulnerabilities”.
Some western teams have yet to be appeased by such assurances.
U.S., Canadian, United Kingdom, and Australian Olympic associations have advised athletes to leave their personal devices at home and use burner phones while in China.
In a statement, the Canadian Olympic Committee noted that the Olympic Games offer a unique opportunity for cybercrime, and recommended athletes be “extra diligent.”
Belgian and Dutch media reported last week that their athletes had received similar advice. Bloomberg reported that Australia will provide its athletes with Wi-Fi in designated areas.
China has been incensed by the diplomatic boycott of these Games that is supported by some countries.
The great firewall of China
In China, authorities monitor and censor the internet for their citizens, keeping the online world behind a “Great Firewall” and blocking major Western websites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
The IOC stated that China would offer athletes and accredited foreign journalists uncensored access to the internet through Wi-Fi networks and official SIM cards.
An article on the news site of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology indicates that state-owned China Unicom will provide SIM cards for foreign journalists arriving in the country.
However, analysts worry such Wi-Fi networks could still pose a number of potential cybersecurity risks to users, including data theft and surveillance.
For the same reason, it is common practice for foreign diplomats to leave their personal phones behind when visiting China on business trips.