With the 2022 Winter Olympics fast approaching, it should be a time of great excitement for athletes and fans alike. Instead, much like the trepidation many had with the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games, the global pandemic continues to loom like a threatening cloud over the event and in this case, politics have come to be significantly intertwined with sport. After calls for governments to boycott the Games, it’s now been revealed that the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee is telling athletes to ditch their personal phones for burners, according to reports from the Wall Street Journal.
The advice comes after mounting concerns over athlete privacy at the Games, and the possibility of digital surveillance while in China. The bulletin explains: “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.”
This advice from the US comes after China was caught secretly installing spyware on tourists’ phones who entered from the Xinjiang region in 2019. As The Verge explains, “This heavily-surveilled area is populated by the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority that China has subjected to imprisonment and torture. In addition, research group Citizen Lab found that China’s My2022 Olympic app, which all attendees are required to install, is full of security holes that could lead to privacy breaches, surveillance and hacking.”
It’s not just the US warning its athletes of the possibility of their devices being monitored. As the Wall Street Journal suggests, Great Britain, Canada and the Netherlands have also cautioned their athletes against bringing their personal electronics into the country. Athletes bringing their personal devices to the Winter Games have been told that they could be exposed to unauthorised access and theft of data by criminal or foreign government elements.
Whether athletes will heed the advice of their respect Olympic Committees remains to be seen. Given that foreign spectators have been banned from the Winter Games due to mounting concerns of the spread of omicron, it’s likely that they will be relying on their phone devices to keep in touch with friends and family. It makes setting up a burner phone more complicated, particularly when it has limits on mobile data, texting and calling. And, given the Winter Olympics is the pinnacle of sporting competition for these athletes, it also serves as something of a distraction when all focus is on their event.