Russians to Play Sophisticated 'I Spy' at Sochi Winter Olympics: Lots to Worry About

By Peter Bernstein October 07, 2013

The Guardian, the media outlet that has been NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s outlet of choice for revealing U.S. communications surveillance practices, took a break from that coverage with an equally disquieting revelation: the Russian government plans on monitoring the communications seemingly of everyone and everything at the Sochi Winter Olympics in a few months. 

My colleague Rory Lidstone has an excellent posting on Russia’s Olympics spying plans, which, as his article notes, interestingly are no secret. Indeed, as with its previous problems regarding participation of gay athletes in the games, the Russian government seems rather content to have its plans flaunted by the media – despite what you would think would be a desire to hide what they are up to.

There are several things about this revelation that deserve comment. I am going to put aside the robust coverage of what the country is up to, which is disturbing enough. University of Toronto professor Ron Deibert summed it up well when he called this whole situation “PRISIM on steroids.” This, of course, is a reference to the NSA program. The distinction here is that the NSA relied on hacking, as well as on service provider and FISA-court sanctioned cooperation, while the Russians have done this from the ground up. In other words, the Olympic communications infrastructure has been optimized to keep tabs on “E”verything. 

Image via Shutterstock

Let’s start with the fact that, just because “everyone is doing it,” and now because of Mr. Snowden, everyone knows, doesn’t mean this should be condoned. However, don’t look for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Olympic governing body, to raise a ruckus. Its mission is to see that the games are held. Hence, other than a natural disaster or the outbreak of a war in the region, the games will go on. It is also impossible to foresee a scenario where a country has the moral suasion to use this as a reason not to participate. The obvious one, the U.S., does not have a leg to stand on, and neither does any other government for that matter. 

Be careful what you say and do

A more interesting question is what can those visiting the games—athletes and their support teams, tourists, and more importantly dignitaries from countries around the world and all of the corporate interests who will be in Sochi, do to protect their private communications?

The best practices in general for those attending the games are that you need to wear a smile and be careful what you do and say. The reason is that you are likely going to be on camera, and I don’t mean network TV, most if not all of the time. Remember that you are: a) in a foreign country; and b) thanks to big data and data manipulation techniques, your activities will be stored for posterity and are food for the mischievous. In short, do not to do things which can easily come back to haunt you.

I am not trying to be totally paranoid, but in the Facebook/Twitter era, this becomes more than a theoretical construct. It is something to ponder. After all, in an era where those with bad intentions have become pretty sophisticated in the use of what is called “ransomware,” and have global reach, you need to at least be aware of your circumstances and surroundings. You also should presume that even the walls have ears and electronic sweeps may not be a match for the latest and greatest technology on this front, since who knows what new tricks are in the Russian’s toolkit.

What about Internet and phone “monitoring”? I guess the answer is “what about it? It will be done.” 

My friends in the security industry tell me that strong encryption is the solution. In fact, they believe that foreign dignitaries and commercial interests, planning for the obvious, have every intention to employ strong encryption not just on emails but on voice calls as well. They have the keys that unlock the doors for safe communications, although it’s unclear who exactly has access to those keys. Also being intensely scrutinized will be any potential instances where measures that have heretofore been safe have been compromised. 

Without any insight into who is using what, it is probably a reasonable assumption on the last point that companies are going to deploy their most sophisticated solutions at the last minute to minimize the risks that an older version has flaws that can be exploited.

Finally, the thing about having the games in a place known for its surveillance of even its own citizens is the host country has total visibility over the terrestrial pipes that carry communications (wired and wireless). This should mean that for assured secure communications satellites are safest, but I say that without expertise on sitcom communications intercept technology.

One of the imponderables the use of surveillance measures, and likely counter-measures, is what can and will be done for future Olympics. We’d all like to believe that the Olympics are about athletic competition. They are, but they are also about national pride, security and money. 

Have the Russians gone too far in putting together their monitoring capabilities? 

The sports fan in me says that if this is what enables them to possibly protect against a terrorist attack then so be it. When one looks at the incredible amount of money as a percentage of total expense that has gone into security at the Olympics since the attacks in Munich on the Israeli wrestling team, it is not a reach to look at what the Russians have done as merely improving on the use of technology that has been part of the Olympic experience ever since. In fact, think back to the London Summer Games as a reference point.

That said, the side of me that frets about “big brother,” even when and if prying eyes are supposedly friendly, is more than a bit spooked by the fact that we may have already crossed a line that nothing is private. That is a deeply troubling conclusion. This is not just about what is or is not private now. It is about what can and might eventually be used against us either totally within context but more likely out of context for some malicious purpose.

This all raises once again an issue for which the law needs to catch up with the technology. In the first instance, it is about drawing lines and enforcing what is or is not sacred ground when it comes to personal privacy whether we are in public spaces or at home. The second comes down to if we can and should have a right to DELETE. It is now almost a cliché to note that if it electronic it will last forever. When it comes to others damaging our reputation through gross distortions, revising the record should be a tool that is available but under what circumstances? These are moving targets, but it seems that at least setting boundaries should have some sense of urgency around the world.

It would be fun to go to an Olympic event. However, how much fun is now open to debate.

Edited by Alisen Downey
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