As the world prepares for the Winter Olympics in Beijing, the athletes will have to contend with more than just competing in their chosen sport. The Chinese government will implement extensive surveillance efforts to ensure the safety of all involved, to control the spread of COVID-19, and to serve China’s political interests. It is the latter reason that is of particular concern.
China’s national image before the world is of the utmost importance to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Why would China feel threatened by professional athletes? Of what possible interest would the personal lives, actions, and opinions of the world’s athletes be to China’s powerful regime? After all, these athletes have not spent their lives in self-sacrifice and arduous training just to spy on China. They will not have access to any Chinese government facilities, senior officials, or state secrets. Why then would China spy on them? The answer is to protect China’s image.
Saving face is a particular paranoia for the CCP; it is what maintains China’s dictatorship. Protecting the CCP’s image has driven Chinese leaders to create the world’s most advanced and pervasive censorship capability, effectively becoming the first digital authoritarian nation. China restricts all information that is released to or by its citizens and is known to coerce or lash out at any foreign government, business, or public figure that criticizes China or its rulers. Athletes are no exception.
First, the athletes must be aware that the information they provide on their visa applications has been used to create files and open-source collection efforts on them. That research effort identifies and places athletes into at least two categories: First, those who have espoused public views that the CCP deems threatening, such as issues relating to democracy, freedom, human rights, Uyghurs, Tibet, minorities, Hong Kong, women’s rights, homosexuality, and/or transgender issues. And second, those that have made public statements in support of China (what the CCP would call “friends of China”). The first group can threaten China’s image by making public statements at the Winter Olympics, while the second group can be exploited to represent China in a positive light.
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Regardless of category, however, athletes can expect to have their cellphone signals intercepted upon arrival in Beijing. Cellphone towers will record everything from the metadata to actual content of messages. The information gathered from the interceptions will be relayed to China’s Ministry of Public Security. There are several national security laws that require companies to provide all communications and associated information to the state’s intelligence and security services upon request. There are also reports from China on criminal organizations using fake cellphone towers to collect personal information on individuals and using the information for a variety of fraud schemes.
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Beijing requires all athletes to install a smartphone app called MY2022 to report health and travel data while in China. The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab reported the app as having significant encryption and security flaws and a censorship list (albeit currently inactive) of 2,442 “illegal words.” The security flaws are by design, allowing authorities to access phones. Such subtle approaches are common among intelligence services.
Once at the Olympic Village, the athletes will be greeted by numerous physical and information security measures. The extensive security measures will be openly advertised as necessary to protect the athletes from COVID-19 – China does not want to put the health of the athletes at risk, as this would embarrass China’s leaders before the world. Therefore, athletes will have limited access to places and people. This practice is standard for large-scale events.
Beijing has promised to provide Olympians internet access at official venues sites and hotels that will allow them to bypass the Great Firewall and access websites banned in China (everything from Facebook and Twitter to Gmail and YouTube, as well as many foreign news sites). That access will most certainly be monitored. Participating companies providing communications and network support, such as Huawei Technologies Co. and Iflytek Co., work closely with China’s Ministry of Public Security. Both are on U.S. export denial lists and Huawei has been accused in U.S. civil and criminal courts of commercial espionage. Several other onsite IT service providers have been banned by foreign countries for their collection of personal data.
All laptop communications will be monitored and provided, in near real time, to China’s security services. Chinese law requires the use of government-approved VPN (Virtual Private Network) providers for internet access. Use of non-approved VPN providers could result in criminal charges against the individual.
Cellphone tracking, onsite video surveillance systems, and facial recognition technology will be used to track the movement of each athlete. China has the most sophisticated facial recognition and associated artificial intelligence in the world, thanks in part to collaborations with U.S. universities and businesses.
Personal behavior will also be watched and catalogued by the Chinese government. Olympic athletes are known for their after-hours celebratory partying. As one would expect, young adults mostly in their 20s, in outstanding physical condition, coming off the most stressful and probably significant event in their lives, are likely to let off a little steam. In fact, during the Tokyo Summer Olympics, the Japanese government built bed frames out of hard cardboard to cut down on any “jumping on the bed” celebrations.
Going beyond this, China will closely monitor the personal behavior of athletes, to include their conversations. For decades, China’s Ministries of State and Public Security have maintained electronic listening devices in hotels frequented by foreigners. It is likely that those security services will do the same at the Olympic Village if deemed necessary. That information may be immediately used or just held for future opportunities.
Politics on the pedestal will be very closely monitored. This is a huge concern for Beijing. In recent years, several athletes have chosen to use their moment on the winner’s pedestal to highlight a political or social issue. The Chinese government will be on watch for such actions. Any public display or statement on any issue that is perceived as offensive will be restricted on Chinese broadcasts, and likely to the global audience as well.
Many of the world’s governments are advising their athletes to take precautions while at the Olympics. Such measures include using new laptops, cellphones, and email addresses, and never accessing any online account with your regular password, which will result in the account being compromised. Devices taken to Beijing should not be used (or at least be thoroughly cleaned) upon return.
Rocked by cheating scandals, international politics, pandemics, and a loss of viewership, the Olympic Games continues to struggle in an ever more cynical and disillusioned world. The great dream of uniting the world through sports is on life support. By being prepared, aware, and protecting themselves in China, the athletes of the world can work to keep that great dream alive and avoid becoming pawns in the game between nations.