Former NBC sportscaster Bob Costas called it perfectly. The International Olympic Committee’s decision to award China the 2022 Winter Olympics deserves nothing but “disdain and disgust.”
That’s because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has earned the world’s disgust, if only for its ongoing genocide of the Uyghurs and other crimes against humanity. This is not a matter of politics. It’s a matter of human rights. But apparently, at IOC headquarters, money matters more than human rights.
At the very least, you’d think the IOC would be interested in protecting the rights and freedoms of Olympic athletes. Now that they are in Beijing, the athletes are under the all-seeing eye of an extensive digital surveillance system. The Party says it’s to ensure their safety and to control the spread of COVID-19.
Let’s take a look at what that actually means for the athletes of the 90 nations participating in the Winter Games.
All attendees and participants are required to download a state-owned (i.e., CCP-owned) app, My2022. Digital researchers at the University of Toronto’s The Citizen Lab warn that the app is so riddled with cybersecurity risks, it may even violate China’s own recently implemented data security law.
Additionally, researchers found that the app marks approximately 2,442 political keywords for censorship. Phrases like “Xi Jinping,” “Dalai Lama,” “Tiananmen Square Massacre” and “China has no human rights” are all described in the app’s supposedly dormant code base as “illegalwords.tx.” The practical use of this blacklist remains unclear, but there is one common thread: All of these are politically sensitive terms that thousands of travelers from around the world could use to expose the CCP’s vast abuses.
In recent days, another researcher reverse engineered the app on Apple iOS and Android and came to a troubling, albeit not shocking, conclusion: “I can definitively say all Olympian audio is being collected, analyzed and saved on Chinese servers using tech from USA blacklisted AI Firm IFLYTEK.”
That firm was associated with 27 other Chinese entities placed on the Department of Commerce’s list of Chinese businesses and individuals “implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs [sic], Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups.”
IFLYTEK can use “voiceprints” to identify individuals through broader databases and has been accused of being used by Xinjiang authorities to monitor and suppress Uyghur Muslims.
Athletes and others attending the games have been advised to use burner phones while in Beijing. But whether they use personal phones or burners, they can expect to have an unwelcome guest spying on their communications via this mandatory app.
For the sake of argument, let’s suppose the app’s potential for invasive surveillance is not as serious as we think. The danger doesn’t end with the My2022 and IFLYTEK. Chinese law says that all citizens and businesses “shall” cooperate and provide anything required or requested from Chinese government and intelligence services and “that all network operators must provide data to, and anything requested by, national, military or public security authorities.”
While those attending the Olympics must stay vigilant of constant surveillance during their visit, that experience is the day-to-day reality of the Chinese people under Xi’s CCP.
Through the usage of facial recognition, artificial intelligence, extensive camera networks, vast cyber capabilities, censorship and the “Great Firewall,” China has created a digital surveillance state, second to none. It is now in the process of proliferating these Orwellian technologies around the globe, as China seeks not only to increase its penetration of technology markets, but also to seed its perverse view of surveillance and suppression to like-minded countries such as Iran and Venezuela.
Xi and the CCP hope that the glamour of the Games and the much vaunted “Olympic spirit” will lead much of the world to turn a blind eye to their ongoing human rights violations and digital authoritarianism that reaches far beyond the fields of competition. But the free world can’t afford to check its values at the door when it comes to designing and managing the technologies of the future or making a dollar in the global marketplace.
During the Games and after the Olympic flame has departed Beijing, it behooves those who believe in freedom of expression, privacy and human rights to speak out against this abusive regime and its pernicious practices.