The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee tells athletes to ditch their personal phones for burners ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics in China, according to a report from the United States. Wall Street Journal (through Android Central).
The advisory was reportedly sent twice last year to warn athletes about the possibility of digital surveillance in China. “Every device, communication, transaction and online activity can be monitored,” the bulletin states. “Your device(s) may also be infected with malicious software, which could negatively affect future use.” As noted by the WSJThe UK, Canada and the Netherlands have also warned athletes not to bring their personal electronics into the country.
The Commission’s fears are not unfounded. In 2019, China was caught secretly installing spyware on the phones of tourists arriving from the Xinjiang region. This heavily guarded area is inhabited by the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority imprisoned and tortured in China. In addition, research group Citizen Lab found that the My2022 Olympic app in China, which all attendees must install, is full of security holes that can lead to privacy violations, surveillance and hacking.
When Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a similar advisory to travelers heading to China, warning that taking devices with you may expose them to “unauthorized access to and theft of data by criminal or foreign government elements”. Things are a little different this time, however, as China has banned all foreign spectators amid concerns over COVID-19. Athletes will likely rely on their mobile devices to keep in touch with friends and family, which can be more complicated on a burner phone that comes with limits on mobile data, texting and calling.
But even if the Olympic athletes want to use their burner phones to surf the web, they may still not get unlimited access. During the 2008 Olympics, China promised to provide unrestricted internet access to spectators, journalists and athletes as The Great Firewall of China currently blocks a number of popular websites in the country such as Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Netflix and more. However, China did not seem to keep its promise. Journalists reported that they were still unable to access certain websites, including BBC China, some Hong Kong newspapers and the site of human rights organization Amnesty International.
China has again said it will give athletes and journalists uncensored access to the internet, but it is unclear whether the country will still block certain sites.