The surveillance state of the Olympics

On this date, Feb. 6 of 1936, the Winter Olympics opened in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria -- the last time both the Winter and Summer Olympics were held in the same country in the same year. 

The Olympics that year attracted some controversy in the US because of the nature of the German political regime under Chancellor Adolf Hitler, who had by then been in power only three years.  But the argument that sports should be independent of politics won out, and so the US went on to participate in both sets of Olympic games.

Diplomatic boycott

Last Wednesday, the 2022 Winter Olympics kicked off in the Peoples' Republic of China. The US is once again participating, although the Biden administration has enforced a diplomatic boycott of the event in protest of  "the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.”

Britain, Australia, and Canada joined the US in the diplomatic boycott, which does not prevent athletes of those countries from participating in the games.  Chinese government representatives fired back that the US was taking actions that “politicise sports, create divisions and provoke confrontation," according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Data insecurity

If you are an athlete or anyone else attending the games, the Chinese government is requiring you to download an app to your smartphone called "My 2022", two weeks before your arrival, and make daily reports of the state of your health.

Ostensibly, the app is supposed to help the government achieve a 100% COVID-free event.  But when computer scientists examined the app, they found serious security flaws in it that can allow not only the Beijing government but random hackers to gain entry to your phone.

It's no surprise to Chinese citizens that the My 2022 app is full of holes.  The Chinese government explicitly reserves the right to access any information stored on an electronic device.  My 2022 just makes it easier for them to do so.

According to the University of Toronto's cybersecurity group Citizen Lab, the app can transmit confidential information such as passport and travel data with encryption that can be "trivially sidestepped."  So even before leaving the US, Olympic athletes and anyone else attending will be subject to the Chinese national security apparatus.

Unavoidable issue

Some people may not be bothered by this.  After all, there is some weight to the argument that sporting events shouldn't be politicised.  But it seems to me that the only way to completely divorce politics from sports is to have all competitors hail from the same political entity.

Victor Cha, writing on the Center for Strategic and International Studies website about the U. S. diplomatic boycott, quotes famed anti-totalitarian author George Orwell as saying, "sport is war minus the shooting."  Any time you have competition, you're going to have partisan cheering, even at the most humble level of small-town sporting events like the Ponca City Wildcats playing against the Enid Plainsmen in the wilds of northern Oklahoma. 

So at the basic level of identification, all sporting events are politicised.  What Beijing objects to is not mere identification with the participants, however, but any action that singles China out as being a less worthy player on the international political stage. 

Are they?  Consider the fact that for the last decade or more, China has been busily constructing a surveillance state that goes beyond the wildest dreams of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Big Brother is watching

One of the most chilling aspects of that book, which came out in 1949, was the omnipresence of "telescreens" which simultaneously broadcast state propaganda from "Big Brother" and spied on people.  Back then, readers reassured themselves that this was rank science fiction, because no regime could possibly afford to hire half the population to spy on the other half, and so most of the time, nobody was watching on the other end.

That was before the Internet and the advent of artificial-intelligence (AI) systems that can recognise faces, voices, and certain words, such as the 2,422 terms in the "illegalwords.txt" file bundled with the My 2022 app.  In it are phrases such as "Tiananmen Riot" and "Dalai Lama." Woe unto anyone who uses those words at the Olympics this winter.


China's goal is to use any information it can get to establish social-credit scores that determine the degree of freedom allotted to each citizen.  People who behave well, according to standards set by the government, can travel, hold jobs, visit certain places, and behave almost like free citizens.

Those lacking a high social-credit score find that their privileges are suddenly withdrawn, and may feel some sympathy with the Uighur people of Xinjiang Province, many of whom have disappeared into "reeducation camps" for no other reason than their identity.

If anyone happens to download this blog onto their My-2022-equipped phone, I will not be held responsible for the consequences.  But it doesn't matter, because the truth about the Beijing regime isn't affected by what I say about it, or by what anybody else says or doesn't say about it.

The Chinese surveillance state has to be one of the grandest violations of human rights, extended over time and space, that the world has ever seen.  Because it has been put in place gradually and folded into the other routine malfeasances and wrongdoings of the regime, it hasn't attracted that many headlines, and billions of people in China manage to go about their business without being seriously inconvenienced by it.

But it's like living in a house with four-foot ceilings.  Nobody would want to live there if the ceilings were dropped all in a day, but if they were moved down three inches a year, you might be able to get used to it.  But it still wouldn't be a good thing.

I can't help but wonder what the endgame will be in China.  Germany overreached its hand, and in 1936 the thousand-year reich actually had less than a decade of future left.  China clearly covets world domination, and in some measures it is well on the way to achieving it. 

But a world in which true freedom is vanquished by an AI-enhanced surveillance regime and every action is monitored and evaluated, is not a world I would care to live in, given a choice.  So far, we still have a choice.  Let's learn from our experience with things like My 2022 that the choice is worth preserving.

Republished with permission from the Engineering Ethics blog.


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