Jan 27, 2022 - Technology

Olympians warned to bring burner phones

Illustration of a snowboarder flying over an open laptop.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

When Olympic athletes from all over the world land in Beijing for the 2022 Olympic Games, they'll be loaded up with burner phones and will likely leave their own devices behind.

Why it matters: Athletes are headed to the Beijing Olympics with mixed guidance from their home countries about whether their personal information will be safe online and their devices will be secure.

  • China is trying to put on a good show for the world ahead of the Games, but experts are sounding the alarm about cybersecurity fears because of the Chinese Communist Party's known penchant for cyber espionage and desire to control online content.

The advice athletes are getting around the world:

  • The Netherlands: The country told its athletes it is anticipating Chinese surveillance during the Games and advised them to leave phones and laptops at home, Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant reported earlier this month.
  • Great Britain: "We've given athletes and staff practical advice so that they can make their own choice as to whether they take their personal devices to the Games, or not. Where they do not want to take their own equipment we have provisioned temporary devices for them to use," a British Olympic Association spokesperson told Axios.
  • Canada: Athletes are being briefed on security in China and the risks of being hacked, per the Toronto Sun, and are being given phones and SIM cards.
  • Germany: Athletes are being given a smartphone "from [International Olympic Committee] partner Samsung in Beijing," German Olympic Sports Federation press spokesperson Michael Schirp told Axios. It's recommending that athletes only use the My2022 health monitoring app, required for athletes to use for COVID-19 monitoring, on the devices while in China.
  • Finland: The Finnish Olympic Committee has distributed cyber and device security to athletes ahead of the games, which it does before every Olympics, spokesperson Mika Noronen told Axios.
  • Australia: The Australian Olympic Committee is "providing athletes with advice on minimizing risk," a spokesperson told the Australian Financial Review, and will provide its own WiFi networks in certain areas at the Games.
  • U.S.: "No guarantees of data privacy or security should be made regardless of the security technology utilized," the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee warned in a tech advisory obtained by Axios. "Assume that every device and every communication, transaction, and online activity will be monitored." The advisory says disposable computers and cell phones are encouraged.

A State Department spokesperson said the department warns all U.S. citizens that officials in China "carefully watch foreign visitors and may place you under surveillance," and that hotel rooms, offices, cars, phones and Internet activity can all be targets of surveillance.

What they're saying: "These countries are rightly concerned about the well-being of their athletes, coaches, and staff. The risk of surveillance, data theft and cybercrime is very high," Martijn Rasser, senior fellow and director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, told Axios.

  • "Unfortunately, it is quite likely that not everyone will heed these warnings, but on the whole it is good that the messaging is clear and done so publicly."

The big picture: The last time the Olympics were held in China was 2008, before the explosion of smartphones and social media. Now, cybersecurity is a major concern for teams heading into the Games.

  • Researchers from the cybersecurity group Citizen Lab recently said My2022, the mandatory app athletes need to use to report their health data and prevent the spread of COVID-19, has encryption flaws. (The International Olympic Committee previously told Axios that after third-party assessments, no critical vulnerabilities were found).

The other side: "According to China's relevant laws and regulations, citizens' personal and data privacy is legally protected and the same is true for every athlete who comes to Beijing Winter Olympics," Chinese Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told Axios.

  • "As for what kind of phone to carry, it is the athletes' individual decision and we hope they will not be misguided or disturbed by misinformation."

Yes, but: Those Chinese laws aren't meant to protect citizens and visitors from the cyber intrusions of the Chinese Communist Party, experts previously told Axios.

What we're watching: Even though burner devices contain far less personal information than personal ones, they can still be hacked and tracked, Jess Parnell, vice president of security operations at security company Centripetal Networks, told Axios: "All that stuff doesn't go out the window just [because] you got a burner phone."

  • Athletes should get rid of burners immediately upon returning to their home countries, he said, despite photos and videos with memories from the Games they may want to keep.
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