Why FBI Doesn’t Want US Athletes Using Their Phones during Beijing Olympics 2022

As the Olympic games have just begun, the FBI has requested that all American athletes traveling to Beijing take a burner cell phone with them.

The 2022 Winter Olympic Games will start on Friday the 4th of February and feature seven new sports, including monobob, a women-only bobsled competition. As if Covid-19 and the new contagious Omicron variant weren’t enough of a threat to Beijing Winter Olympics 2022, cyberattacks have also been flagged by many countries.

In its latest, the FBI on Tuesday has warned US athletes heading to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics to bring a burner phone with them instead of their phones, citing a risk of cyberattacks due to the size of the event.

Team USA reportedly advised this year’s Olympic athletes to leave their phones behind as they set for Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. They urged Americans competing in the games to take disposable burner phones instead to prevent potential surveillanceand safeguard their privacy and security against the Chinese government. The Wall Street Journal reported on Jan. 14. 

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According to the report, “the data and programs on cell phones, like computers, are vulnerable to malicious intrusion, infection, and data breach. A few days before the opening ceremonies, the FBI claimed it was unaware of “any specific threat” against the Olympics, but cautioned all attendees to “be vigilant.” 

FBI Director Christopher Wray calls threats from China are “more brazen” than ever before and notes 2000 ongoing investigations into crime emerging from China.

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The warning came after the Biden administration announced in December that no US officials would attend the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing as part of a diplomatic boycott against China’s human rights issues. During a press briefing on Dec. 6, Jen Psaki said that “considering the ongoing crimes, genocide against humanity in Xinjiang, China, the Biden administration will not send any US official or diplomats to the 2022 Paralympic Games and Winter Olympics to represent the country.”

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Expressing the Biden administration’s support to US athletes, Psaki said that the US provides consular and security services to its athletes, coaches, trainers, and staff. She added, “Additionally, we expect the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our athletes.

The US is not alone in issuing warnings considering the cybersecurity threats at the Games, the National Olympic Committees in some Western countries are also urging their athletes to leave their gadgets at home or use temporary phones,” the agency said in a notice. Similar warnings were issued by the Olympic Associations of the United Kingdom and Canada. The Dutch instructed its athletes not to bring personal devices to Beijing.

What Kind Of Cyberattacks Is The FBI Worried About?

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In its release notice, the FBI stated that “athletes could be susceptible to distributed denial-of-service attacks, disinformation campaigns, social engineering, ransomware, data leaks or theft, phishing efforts, and insider threats.” The agency also cautioned about malware, data theft, and installing “tracking tools” on mobile devices.

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Besides this, new technology warnings continue to be issued. One of such is the warning issued by the FBI on the ‘My 2022’ app, which all athletes, reporters, and other attendees of the 2022 Beijing Olympics are required to download to keep track of their health and vaccination information about COVID-19. 

FBI’s concerns ride on the back of a Citizen Lab assessment that the MY2022 app, which the Beijing Organizing Committee built, contains serious flaws that might allow personal data, including irrelevant medical information, to be collected by a malicious host, exposing it to leaks. The IOC and Chinese officials, on the other hand, have both refuted the allegations.

While the Olympic warning is necessary and appropriate, threats to personal safety and security from technology from companies owned and affiliated with the Chinese government are just as real and prevalent to ordinary Americans every day in the USA. No matter where one is logged in or plugged in, privacy and security are at risk when using Chinese tech. By China’s decrees, its firms violate data protection practices of the US and European Union.

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Why are the Beijing Olympics a cyberattack target?  

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Cyberattacks on major international events, such as the Olympics, are common. According to the NSA, more than 450 million cyberattacks were launched against the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020, with none of them succeeding. There have been previous instances when cyberattacks were only marginally successful during such events, such as when cybercriminals targeted the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Court of Attribution for Sport during the 2016 Rio Olympics, or when one such attack nearly brought the South Korean Olympics opening ceremony to a halt. As a result, the FBI’s warnings are not without merit. 

The good news is that the NTT Corporation, which handled telecommunications, network security, and various cyber security measures for the Tokyo Olympics, will also provide security services for the Beijing Olympics. When speaking with ZDNet, NTT compared combating cyberattacks during the Tokyo Olympics to the final fight scene from Harry Potter against Voldemort. 

What Is the Political Motivation Behind the Allegations/Warnings? 

Of course, the Beijing Winter Olympics are not without political overtones.

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The FBI’s warning came on the same day that its director, Christopher Wray, slammed the Chinese government for allegedly conducting state-sponsored cyberattacks to steal information and technology from US corporations in a separate event. It doesn’t help that the US and several other countries have chosen to boycott the Olympics diplomatically.

China Dismissed The Concerns

The games run from Feb. 4 to Feb. 20, with around 3,000 athletes competing in 109 different events. The Winter Paralympics run from Mar. 4 to Mar. 13. The Chinese government is spending $3.9bn (€3,4bn) on the Games, which take place in and around Beijing. The Global Times under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party, has also replied to cyber security worries raised by Western countries, stating that Russian intelligence claims the US may engage in cyberattacks or cyber espionage during the Games. Global Times also accused Western countries of running propaganda against China by ‘pushing negative coverage’ of the Beijing Olympics. President Xi has said that the government will “spare no effort” to make the Games successful.

However, only time will tell how China and all the athletes emerge from the Beijing Winter Olympics, shadowed by many problems.

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Feature image credit: Vladimir Putin attended the opening ceremony of the XXIV Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. by Presidential Executive Office of Russia under Y 4.CC BY 4.00