Oct 06 2013

Invasive monitoring at next Winter Olympics

If you have plans to go to the next Winter Olympics, in Sochi, Russia, prepare to have any and all of your electronic communications monitored.  The Guardian has found paperwork, including procurement documents and tenders, looking for the technology needed to monitor all communications to and from the Olympic venue.  We have to assume that this means all phone calls, all wifi access and is very likely to include ways to break into other, supposedly encrypted, channels such as Skype and the TOR network.

It’s really nothing new to think of governments monitoring the communications going on at the Olympics, but the sheer size and depth to which the Russian government will be monitoring is more than a bit daunting.  Given the current environment and the fact that citizens from every walk of life are more sensitive than ever to being spied upon, it’s very likely that this will receive more attention than if it had happened at the London Olympics.  And because it’s Russia that’s doing the monitoring, rather than a western power, it makes it more suspect in many people’s eyes.

One of the scary aspects the Guardian story hints at is that monitoring won’t be aimed simply at the security and safety of attendees of the Olympics, it will also be aimed at political dissidents and ‘illegal’ activities, such as gay rights activism.  Adding to that the probability that all data captured during the Olympics is going to be stored indefinitely and analyzed in depth, anyone who holds views that are unpopular in Russian government should be very, very nervous.  I won’t be surprised to see a number of Russian citizens who attend the Olympics arrested three to six months later as the government gets around to analyzing their communications.  Or to have these communications surfacing years later to embarrass dissidents.

Yes, I’m paranoid.  But if I have an opportunity to attend the Olympics in Sochi, I’ll have to think twice before accepting it.  I’ll take a number of precautions similar to what I’d take if I was attending a big event in China: burner phone with a local SIM, laptop that will be retired after the event, email address that only gets used during the Olympics, just for starters.  I’d also be very cognizant of the fact that I’m being monitored every moment, with my movements being analyzed by computer algorithms as well as human agents.  Most importantly, I would avoid any reading that would raise my paranoia level higher than it already was before or during the trip.

Most people will be oblivious to the monitoring at the Olympic games.  And for most people, that’s a price they’re willing to pay in order to see one of the biggest events in the world.  Which could be the right decision for the average Joe.  But if you’re not the average Joe, if you have opinions or tendencies that are unpopular with the Russian government, think twice about taking some precautions before you head to the Olympics in 2014.

Last of all, remember, the monitoring of electronic communications will just part of the equation.  There will be mics and cameras everywhere as well.  Probably even the bathrooms.

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