China breaks new records in the Surveillance Olympics

9 February 2022

2:26 AM

9 February 2022

2:26 AM

Never before have the participants in a major sporting event been so closely monitored as in this Winter Olympics in Beijing. The 1980 Summer Olympics in Soviet Moscow were nothing in comparison. Athletes are competing under a blanket of observation, ostensibly to keep Covid at bay, yet imposed by a paranoid Communist party for whom critical words or thoughts are as dangerous as any virus.

Everyone attending the games, including athletes, support staff and media, must install on their phones an app, My 2022, which harvests a wide range of personal data. It has the ability to censor and track its users, according to cybersecurity experts who have examined the app. The app is used to submit health information such as Covid test results and vaccination status. Other functions include real-time chat, voice audio chat, file transfers, as well as news and weather updates about the Olympic Games.

Spyware specialists at the Citizen Lab, a research institute at the University of Toronto, said it was unclear with whom or which organisations the app shared the information, and that the app also included features allowing users to report ‘politically sensitive’ content. It also contained a censorship keyword list, giving the authorities the ability to block discussion of issues such as Xinjiang or Tibet. The researchers also said encryption vulnerabilities meant the app could be easily hacked.

The games have duly been dubbed the ‘burner phone Olympics’ after a number of western countries, including Britain, warned against bringing personal phones or laptops to Beijing. This was out of fear that the Chinese authorities could install spyware to extract personal information and monitor future activity. ‘It should be assumed that every text, email, online visit, and application access can be monitored or compromised,’ said a United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee advisory.

Cyber security experts have long considered any devices exposed to China to be unusable once brought home, and business executives now routinely use burner phones and throwaway laptops for visits to the country. For athletes, however, it is a new experience. They have faced warnings from the organisers against raising human rights issues. Beijing 2022 deputy director general, Yang Shu, said athletes would be ‘subject to certain punishment’ if their comments on human rights issues are ‘against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations.’ While Yang Yang, the chair of the Beijing Winter Olympics Athletes’ Commission, has warned competitors that they ‘need to be responsible’ if they decide to speak out about controversial issues.

The games have been accompanied by a crackdown on China’s dwindling band of human-rights activists. This is routine ahead of major international events, but has reportedly been more severe this time, with activists, journalists and academics receiving police warnings and censorship of their social media platforms. Hu Jia, a Beijing-based human rights activist, said in a tweet that activists around the country were being summoned by state security officials and warned to stay silent.

As Xie Yang, a Changsha-based human rights lawyer discovered, one tool employed by the authorities is the manipulation of a health app that Chinese citizens are required to download in order to move around. This has been dubbed the ‘traffic light app’ since it harvests data about the user, their movements and interactions in order to gauge their risk of Covid infection.

When Xie Yang prepared to visit Shanghai to see the mother of a dissident, his phone app showed green, meaning he could go. There were no cases of Covid in his home town. When he reached Changsha airport, his app turned red, and security officials tried to quarantine him. He accused the police, who had warned him against going, of meddling with the code. Last month, just ahead of the Olympics, police detained Xie and accused him of inciting subversion and provoking trouble.

The pandemic, and China’s increasingly desperate ‘zero Covid’ policy, has been a perfect testbed for Xi Jinping’s surveillance state, enabling him to rapidly bring together a range of claustrophobic tools — all in the name of fighting an international health crisis. These will certainly outlive the virus, with the notion of ‘health’ extended to include all manner of words, thoughts and behaviour the CCP deems unhealthy. Olympic athletes are now getting their experience of Xi’s panopticon.

Last week, president Vladimir Putin said that Russia and China oppose the ‘politicisation of sport’. This followed the political theatre of his meeting with Xi Jinping, held on the same day as the opening ceremony, during which they put on a united front against the West.

In the days that followed, Beijing has proceeded to do just that — politicise the games. Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a cross-country skier of Uighur descent, was picked as one of the two final torch-bearers at the opening ceremony. This was widely seen as China’s response to accusations of vast human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Having served her purpose, the 20-year-old finished 43rd in her event and promptly disappeared from the spotlight.

Then Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, was used again in a role he seems to relish — a political prop for the Communist party. Over the weekend, he reportedly held a private meeting with Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who disappeared after making sexual abuse accusations against a senior Communist party official last November. An IOC statement on Monday did not address Peng’s accusations, merely saying that Peng was at the Winter Olympics and attending events.

Earlier Peng had given an interview to the French sports daily L’Equipe, in which she said her accusation had been a misunderstanding. The interview was arranged on Sunday by China’s Olympic committee, and the newspaper said it had been required to submit questions for Peng in advance, and her comments in Chinese were translated by a Chinese Olympic committee official. Most people familiar with Communist party intimidation regard any statement made by Peng as not credible while she remains in China.

Just days into the Winter Olympics and the games are shaping up to be a highly political event — though pity the hapless athletes. Watched, tracked, monitored, they are whisked away and locked up in grim isolation wards at the hint of Covid, with only their burner phones for company.

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