At the Olympics, cybersecurity concerns linger in the background

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FILE – A woman looks at her phone as she walks past an Olympic logo inside the main media center for the 2022 Winter Olympics, January 18, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

PA

Warnings regarding the use of disposable “burner” phones and laptops. Privacy protection software. Concerns over a security flaw in an official Games smartphone app.

Such precautions have fueled unease about the privacy of competitor and participant data at the Beijing Winter Olympics. Not everyone listened to them.

“Honestly, I’ve been coming to China for about 12 years, and I’m not that big,” said Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris. “Maybe if I was a diplomat or something, I’d turn off my phone.”

Nefarious cyber activity is a flashpoint in the geopolitical rivalry between China and the West. Beijing has long been accused by the United States and tech watchdogs of online spying and large-scale data theft, allegations it denies.

Now that the Games are winding down and some 16,000 athletes, organisers, journalists and other visitors are heading home, concerns are turning to malware and other issues that those who ignored the warnings might have with them.

The good news: Cybersecurity firm Mandiant said there were no signs of Olympics-related “intrusion activity” by Chinese or other governments.

But that shouldn’t be taken as a sign that nothing happened, said Benjamin Read, director of cyber espionage analysis at Mandiant.

“Most compromises are detected weeks or months after they occur, so it’s too early to say for sure that there haven’t been any incidents,” he said.

It’s also possible that electronic surveillance was greatest when visitors were in China and not continuing when those people returned home, he said.

He advised anyone who traveled to China for the Winter Games to change their passwords upon their return and ensure that no unknown device or service has access to their accounts.

“It’s not always possible to tell if a device has been compromised, so it’s best to take every precaution,” he said.

Unhindered internet access is important to many amateur Olympic athletes who post photos and videos of their exploits on Instagram and other social media sites. This can be critical for landing sponsors.

“I’m on my phone for sure. I think we’re all on our phones,” said Canadian snowboarder Laurie Blouin, who said she was “feeding the Grams”.

McMorris said he uses his iPhone to stream TV shows, exchange chat messages and post on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.

And US-born Chinese freestyle skiing sensation Eileen Gu has posted multiple times on Instagram since the start of the Games.

When a user asked why she could use the app, which is blocked in China, Gu replied that “anyone can download a vpn,” or virtual private network, software that scrambles communications so that it cannot be read by anyone except the addressee.

The posts, which later disappeared, sparked an online outcry over internet freedom, in part because VPNs are not available in Chinese app stores after authorities cracked down on their use.

Some American athletes have said they also use VPNs, which can be used to break through China’s so-called “Great Firewall,” a censorship system that blocks websites, services and apps deemed inappropriate by athletes. authorities.

The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee had told athletes that everything they did online in China would be monitored. The Canadian Olympic Committee has warned that there is potential for cyber crimes.

But while there were no specific details on the threats, experts said it was unlikely to be about gaining a competitive advantage when gaming.

“The Chinese government is not interested in the average snowboarder,” said Greg Austin, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“They’re interested in collecting all the data they have and putting it into a database of whether the snowboarder could become a politician or a leader in a position of influence,” Austin said.

He added that this is not an uncommon practice for the intelligence services of any country.

Beijing was also likely monitoring anything politically sensitive in communications from Olympic visitors, such as contact with dissidents, Austin said.

Journalists were arguably a juicier target than athletes, and many brought in burners as well.

The International Olympic Committee said cybersecurity was “an important aspect of staging the Games”, but to maintain safe operations it would not comment further.

Regardless, some attendees who took precautions were looking forward to resuming their daily streaming and social media regimen.

American figure skater Mariah Bell received a burner phone, but stayed away from social media and Netflix, which she said was “both amazing and annoying”.

“I’m so excited to go home to see my dog,” she said, “to see my family, to go back to sitting on Instagram for hours.”

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Associated Press writer Aaron Morrison contributed to this report. AP Business Writer Kelvin Chan writes about technology from London and covers a series of Olympic stories in Beijing. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/chanman.

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