As professional big air snowboarder Julia Marino completed her final preparations for the Winter Olympics, US officials sent Marino and her teammates a word of caution about China’s surveillance apparatus. The athletes were warned not to take their personal phones to the games. “We are using burner phones while we’re going to be there,” Marino, a seven-time X Games medalist, said in an interview on Instagram. Athletes were also cautioned not to speak out against human rights abuses. “There has been discussion of what could happen if we do speak out,” Marino said in the interview.
As the Beijing Winter Olympics kick off, Marino isn’t alone. Thousands of foreign athletes, coaches, (some) diplomats, and members of the media are descending on the Chinese capital and taking extra measures to protect themselves from snooping by authoritarian law enforcement officials. That means burner laptops and phones to ensure sensitive data can’t be hoovered up, and self-censoring potential criticism of human rights abuses against the Muslim Uyghur population in the northwestern Xinjiang region. “For anyone that visits China, you have to anticipate that everything that you do on an electronic device has been taken,” says Fergus Hanson, a director of international cyber policy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank. “The level of security you have got there is very low.”
A lot has changed since China last hosted the Olympics in the summer of 2008. The nation has evolved into a technological superpower, with advanced capabilities in everything from artificial intelligence to quantum computing. Its homegrown tech giants make products that have hundreds of millions of users and underpin the essential tasks in people’s daily lives. At the same time, technological surveillance and censorship of the country’s citizens is rife, China maintains a sophisticated group of state-backed hackers, and the UN has warned about the detention and treatment of Uyghurs.
Up to 1 million Uyghurs are being held in detention camps in the Xinjiang region. Multiple countries, including the US, have declared that the Chinese government is committing genocide. Evidence shows Uyghur populations are being used as forced labor and sterilized. International diplomats are boycotting the games over the human rights crisis, but critics say the action is not enough to force China to change its approach. Meanwhile, China’s state-backed hackers have become ever more ruthless in the last few years, while other affiliated groups have run vast disinformation operations against critics of the country’s human rights record.
Countries participating in the Olympics are taking the risks seriously. Olympic organizations in Canada, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, and the US have warned athletes that any devices they take to China are likely to be surveilled. “It should be assumed that every text, email, online visit, and application access can be monitored or compromised,” says a United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee advisory obtained by Axios. An FBI briefing note says travelers should use temporary phones and receive training to spot potential social engineering efforts.
The FBI further advises that anyone headed to China regularly update VPNs, network equipment, and devices and that they audit logs for new users of services and admin accounts within systems. The security precautions do not extend beyond what diplomats and members of NGOs that travel to China might expect, but these measures have drawn increased attention as Beijing hosts the games and the influx of foreigners associated with them. “What is totally normal in China, for reporters who have to work in a hazardous operating environment, is not normal for the Olympics,” says Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, who used to live and work in Hong Kong.