Athletes train their entire lives to compete at the Olympics. But in Sochi, our athletes, coaches, sports organizations, spectators and dignitaries may find themselves competing in a different sort of games.
Let the games begin
The telecommunications, e-mail and social network presence of athletes and others attending the Olympics will be under intense scrutiny before, during and after the events. These communications will be exploited for competitive advantage, political-economic intelligence, hints of sedition, identity theft and manufacturing future access. The Russians have the means, motive and history of surveillance, censorship and repression. There is clear evidence of a growing apparatus.
These Olympics are taking place amid profound and unprecedented technological capability for pervasive surveillance. Sochi provides a concentration of targets of opportunity. In these spy games, the Russians have home-turf advantage.
Relevance to athletes
At Sochi, athletes may face the most technically intrusive surveillance in the history of the Olympics, with spying that extends into social media and the wider Internet.
Athletes can expect to have been profiled from the moment they are named to a team. This will most likely include the harvesting of their social media presence, the content of their posts, their political views, their social network, lifestyle, potential indiscretions, online training logs, VO2 max test results, heart-rate zone performance and so on. There may be attempts to entrap or break into a circle of trusted friends or groups. Athlete and their electronics will have already been exposed whenever they’ve travelled to the Commonwealth of Independent States for competition. Simply visiting Sochi-related websites may be enough to infect a computer with spyware.
During the Games, it is reasonable to assume that all phone calls, e-mail, texts, web browsing, online banking and access to voice mail will be intercepted and exploited. Athletes who hope to take home medals may be taking home something else on their laptop instead.
In Sochi itself, the confidentially and integrity of any computer or device can be compromised with momentary physical access. Personal contacts and account passwords on a laptop or cellphone can be harvested in seconds.
Strategy discussed in team dressing rooms or over the airwaves will be subject to eavesdropping, whereas team radio communications are also vulnerable to electronic warfare tactics: deception, spoofing, interference or jamming at critical moments during play. Anti-doping systems that track athletes’ whereabouts provide potential indirect exposure.
Consider that Russian security services share a cozy relationship with organized crime, who stand to benefit from information collected from the state espionage infrastructure. Consequently, banking and identification information are at also at risk.
What athletes and others say before, during and after the Games will be capable of getting them in trouble. The FSB security service makes very little distinction between free speech, social advocacy, sedition and espionage. Should athletes feel compelled to speak out, they should appreciate the risks and take the necessary precautions.
Gay rights, the North Caucasus conflict, religious tolerance or support for Russia’s political opposition are topics that will flag you for special attention. Even discussion threads on social media back home are viewable by the Russian government. Friends posting publicly visible content to your social media accounts can be problematic.
The new law regarding gay propaganda falls under the guise of “things that are harmful to children.” This is more or less catch-all legislation that allows the government to prosecute people who talk about things it doesn’t like.
Specifically, if a foreign citizen propagates “non-traditional sexual relations to minors,” the law calls for a fine of $125 to $160 (U.S.), deportation or 15 days in jail. If the offence involves the use of media or the Internet, fines increase to $1,500 to $3,000. This is not the Olympic experience most athletes will be envisioning.
Russians befriended within these proscribed online discussions risk arrest – or they may be government agents.
Meanwhile, state security services are intent on monitoring and cracking down on anything that threatens to disrupt the Games, and on exploiting opportunities in the pursuit of national objectives.
Organizers are promoting the fastest wireless Internet networks in Olympic history, free of charge. Just remember: “If it’s free, then you are the product.”
Canada athletes can reach the podium in Sochi, but they may have to navigate a few more “slalom gates” than has been the case at previous Olympics. Athletes and officials are counselled to exercise discretion, especially online – sensitive information could be used to erode Team Canada’s competitive advantage, or to place LGBT Russians at risk.
Dave McMahon is a former Canadian national biathlon champion and current chief operating officer of Secdev.com, which works at the intersection of cyberspace, social and political change, competition and conflict on issues affecting netizens, businesses and governments. He is donating his time to help athletes with personal security at the Sochi Games.