The U.S. joins Great Britain, Canada, the Netherlands in taking precautions against being monitored through technology.
By Rachel Bachman and Louise Radnofsky
Mikaela Shiffrin is one of the top U.S. athletes heading to Beijing for the Olympics next month. PHOTO: CHARLES KRUPA/ASSOCIATED PRESS
American athletes heading to Beijing for the Winter Olympics could find themselves without their most familiar equipment: their cellphones.
The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee is encouraging Team USA to use disposable or “burner” phones instead of bringing their own devices to China, because of possible surveillance during the Games that begin Feb. 4.
The guidance was set out in an advisory document in September and a bulletin in December. The bulletin said to plan that “every device, communication, transaction and online activity may be monitored. Your device(s) may also be compromised with malicious software, which could negatively impact future use.”
The recommended use of temporary phones signals how different the approach to these Olympics is from previous Games, where advice to athletes generally consists of following local laws and being respectful of cultural norms.
Using temporary phones could complicate athletes’ efforts to stay in touch with family and friends – who are barred from attending the Games alongside them, due to a ban on overseas spectators. It could also make it more difficult for athletes to promote themselves and their accomplishments on social media, which is one of their most important tools in obtaining and maintaining endorsement deals.
The U.S. is not the only country to have taken this stance. The Canadian Olympic Committee said that it has told its athletes “that the Olympic Games present a unique opportunity for cybercrime and recommended that they be extra diligent at Games, including considering leaving personal devices at home, limiting personal information stored on devices brought to the Games, and to practice good cyber-hygiene at all times.”
The British Olympic Association and Dutch Olympic Committee/Dutch Sports Federation also have advised the members of their delegations to take precautions ahead of the Beijing Games.
The BOA confirmed that it has “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.” Athletes who do not want to take their own equipment will be given temporary devices.
The Dutch federation has also told participants it will distribute such devices and then destroy them when delegates have returned from China, according to Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant. The association has declined to comment on this directly.
“It is our main concern to create the best environment for our athletes to deliver their best ever performance in safe and healthy circumstances and take them home accordingly. For the efficiency of all the work we put in this we feel it is not useful to make any of these public,” said John van Vliet, a Dutch spokesman.
International Olympic Committee officials declined to comment on the matter when it was raised in a technical briefing for reporters earlier this week.
It’s not unusual for national Olympic officials to warn their constituents about potential cyber dangers when traveling to the Games. With so many officials and famous people gathering in one place, the Olympics represent an attractive opportunity for hackers, no matter the Games’ location.
To many in the West, however, China represents an exceptional threat. The Chinese government widely surveils its own population and routinely censors social-media posts it deems harmful to its national interest.
Meanwhile, another technology issue that had concerned some Americans in particular seems to have passed. U.S. political leaders have criticized the idea that Beijing Olympic organizers would require athletes to download or use Chinese digital currency at the Games.
But in response this week to an email from The Wall Street Journal, a Beijing 2022 representative confirmed: “Athletes and other stakeholders of the Games will not be required to download or use China’s digital currency (digital yuan) during Games time.”