The mission of the International Olympic Committee includes ‘opposing any political abuse of athletes’.
So, why is that more than one thousand athletes and delegates from seven countries have been advised to leave their mobile devices at home and pick up a ‘burner’ phone, before travelling to the Winter Olympics in China?
The US, British, Canadian, Swiss, Swedish, German and Dutch Olympic committees have told their teams they should not take their usual electronic equipment to Beijing, and use disposable kit instead, which they can bin after the event.
With the exception of the US, most Olympic committees have couched their warnings in diplomatic language.
However, Human Rights Watch has got straight to the point. Last week, it described China as an ‘Orwellian surveillance state’.
But what does state surveillance mean for the 962 athletes plus coaches, volunteers and officials from the seven concerned countries.
‘They can get everything,’ Gary Miller, a mobile security analyst, told Sportsmail.
By everything, Miller, who has made a career of analysing mobile threats and compiling intelligence reports, means access to phone calls, text, emails, files, photographs, app and internet use, as well as a competitor’s location.
There is also the potential for Olympic delegates to trigger surveillance if certain key words are used in exchanges. The censored words include profanities, such as ‘f*** your mother’, but also references to politically sensitive subjects, like Tiananmen Square and repression of the Uyghur people.
1,000 athletes are expected to use ‘burner’ phones at the Winter Olympics over hacking fears
A Chinese snowboarder looks at her phone as she sits in the locker areas at the Thaiwoo Ski Resort before it closed for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, on January 3, 2022 in Chongli
If this sounds like something from the movies that is not surprising. In the 2007 action-thriller The Bourne Ultimatum, a fictional investigative journalist at The Guardian, Simon Ross, triggered a manhunt by mentioning a trigger word over a mobile network.
It ended badly for Ross, who only made it through half-an-hour of the 115-minute film, before he was eliminated at Waterloo Station by a rogue unit of the CIA.
Miller explains that it would be possible for a hacker in China to launch a cyber-attack on a delegate’s telephone using the person’s ‘mobile network identity’ or the My2022 app, which everyone attending the Games is asked to download. What’s more, potential surveillance does not end after the Games, he said.
‘If you take your own phone, they get visibility into your network identity,’ the chief executive of the mobile security company, Exigent Media, said. ‘It is not your telephone number, because that can be changed. What is more difficult and more persistent is that network identity.
‘Nation states are really interested in that because that is something they can track regardless of whether you are making phone calls or using data services.
‘You can even change your devices and [that identity] will still come with you. They can resolve that [identity] to your phone number, so now they have both.’
The network identity is associated with the user’s SIM card, so if you put that into a new phone, you are still at risk.
According to Miller, once a surveillance group has this data they can track your location, monitor telephone calls, see who you are corresponding with, read texts, and view the websites and apps you are looking at.
But it is the My2022 app that provides the potential for the most detailed scrutiny of a person’s private life.
‘That is crazy,’ said Miller. ‘There is a slew of capabilities you are just giving them. If you were to bring your own device, you could get a tonne of information. It is clearly compromising. If you are communicating with others then basically you are handing your information to whoever is controlling this app.
‘It’s just a scary app, period,’ he added.
The app has been created to monitor attendees’ health because of the Covid pandemic, but it also includes other functions including messaging, chat, file transfer, event access and a visitor guide.
Human Rights Watch has warned anyone travelling to China that they should be aware of the risk of surveillance. Pictured: People take selfies in front of an installation of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics mascot Bing Dwen Dwen and Winter Paralympics Shuey Rhon Rhon
Team GB bosses have said they will provide a disposable phone to all athletes and staff
The app has been highlighted as containing security flaws that make it vulnerable to privacy breaches and hacking, according researchers at Toronto’s Citizen’s Lab.
The group found that safeguards, which are supposed to ensure data is only exchanged between trustworthy devices and servers, are not functional.
As a result, the app could be deceived into connecting with a malevolent host, allowing information to be intercepted or even malicious data to be sent back to the app.
Miller says the app’s functionality allows it to ‘control network access’ and ‘near field communication’, ‘pair with Bluetooth devices’, access files, photographs, video and other media and modify them, as well as ‘download files without notification’. It can also add material to the phone. All of these functions are listed in the app’s permissions.
However, a particularly ‘concerning proposition’ says Miller, given the Chinese government’s sensitivity to criticism, is a list of censorship keywords embedded in the app.
Experts say Smartphones can be targeted via the Chinese mobile phone network and the My 2022 app, which attendees are asked to download to report health data and access venues
Citizen’s Lab researchers found a text file in the app called ‘illegalwords.txt.’
It contains 2,442 keywords and phrases, mostly written in Chinese, but some of the words are also in Uyghur, Tibetan and English. They relate to sensitive issues like the Tiananmen Square protests and the Uyghur Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang region.
In Chinese are phrases like ‘Xi Jinping’ (China’s president), CCP Evil; in Uyghur there is ‘The Holy Quran’ and ‘forced demolition’ and in Tibetan ‘Dalai Lama’ and ‘protector’, as well as pornography references.
Citizen’s Lab found that in the version of the app they analysed the censorship was not active, but the researchers concluded it would ‘require little effort’ to make it live.
The Winter Olympics in Beijing holds its Opening Ceremony on February 4
‘It would be very easy for the app to be activated,’ agreed Miller. ‘It could be activated [through updates] and look for those keywords or refuse to send certain keywords,’.
‘That is a concerning proposition,’ he said. ‘It is very spooky.’
The Citizen Lab report into the MY2022 app acknowledged the vulnerabilities could be the result of poor software development and the quirky requirements of some Chinese internet networks, so that functionality has been placed above security. And it is not unusual for Chinese apps to include a list of censorship keywords.
But this vast potential capacity for surveillance has certainly spooked the Olympic committees of Western countries.
‘It should be assumed that every text, email, online visit, and application access can be monitored or compromised,’ the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee said in an advisory to its 223 athletes plus support staff.
The British Olympic Association will offer temporary phones to Team GB athletes and staff.
But why would the Chinese authorities want to monitor athletes?
Chinese have been accused of committing genocide against Uyghur by the US government
According to Human Rights Watch it is not just athletes. It suggests everyone travelling to China is at risk.
‘One of the features of the 2008 Games [in Beijing] was the authorities’ use of what was then considered high technology, but that pales in comparison to the Orwellian surveillance state,’ said Dr Sophie Richardson, the organisation’s China director.
Demonstrations have been held across Europe, including this one in Berlin
‘The authorities use across the country now where tools like AI and predictive policing, Big Data databases, extensive surveillance of social media platforms, keeps people from engaging in certain kinds of conversations. Anyone who’s travelling to the country for these games – journalists, athletes, coaches – needs to be aware that this kind of surveillance could affect them.’
However, the Chinese authorities have made it clear they do not intend to tolerate athletes specifically criticising China’s laws and regulations during the Games. After all, they are the stars of the show.
Yang Shu, the deputy director of international relations for the Beijing organising committee, told a press conference last week that ‘dedicated departments’ would investigate athletes’ comments at the Games.
Brutal suppression of the Uyghurs extends to demonstrations, like this one in Hong Kong, 2019
‘Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected,’ Yang said.
‘Any behaviour or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.’
There are big issues that athletes will feel strongly about.
China has been criticised around the world for its treatment of the Uyghur minority and other groups in the autonomous region of Xinjiang in the west of the country.
The US government has described the actions of the ruling Communist Party as ‘genocide’, and so have British MPs.
In addition to these human rights abuses, athletes have previously used the platform afforded them by the Olympic Games as an opportunity to speak out on LGBT issues. Britain’s Tom Daley was a prime example at Tokyo 2020, after claiming gold in the synchronised 10m dive.
Tom Daley was outspoken in his support of LGBT inclusion after he won gold in Tokyo 2020
China has tightened restrictions on personal expression among LGBT groups in the months ahead of the Games, which could attract criticism from the competitors and there are more LGBT athletes at this Winter Games than ever before.
However, Shu’s threat and the Chinese capacity for surveillance have prompted Olympic committees to urge caution and some advocacy organisations to suggest silence is the best course of action.
Rob Koehler, director general of the most high-profile international sports athlete advocate organisation, Global Athlete, urged the IOC to announce it would support competitors who spoke in favour of human rights.
‘It is absolutely ridiculous that we’re telling athletes to be quiet,’ he told The Guardian. ‘But the IOC has not come out proactively to indicate that it will protect them.
‘Silence is complicity and that’s why we have concerns. So, we’re advising athletes not to speak up. We want them to compete, and use their voice when they get home.’
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Beijing Organising Committee have dismissed the concerns.
Anna Hoffman of the United States and Logan Sankey of the United States wave to a camera after finishing in first and second place in the ski jumping competition at the U.S. Nordic Combined & Ski Jump Olympic Trials on December 25, 2021 in Lake Placid, New York. The US Olympic teams has been outspoken about security risks for athletes in China
The IOC said it had conducted independent assessments on the My2022 application and had not found any ‘critical vulnerabilities’.
‘It is not compulsory to install My 2022 on cell phones,’ the IOC said in a statement to Reuters. It can also be accessed through the internet.
Yu Hong, head of Beijing Organising Committee’s technology department has said the main function of the app is to monitor people’s health and China follows strict rules to protect data, adding that the software had been validated by the relevant app stores, during a briefing hosted by the Chinese embassy in the United States, earlier this month.
Yu also said that technology vulnerabilities were natural when developing this kind of an app, which her department was constantly updating in order to remove such issues.
The Beijing committee has also dismissed allegations of digital surveillance as ‘totally unnecessary’ fears based on ‘zero evidence’.