2014 Winter Olympic Games: Sochi’s surveillance legacy

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Photo credit: Atos International via Flickr

The 2014 Olympics in Sochi were all about watching amazing winter sports and inspirational stories unfold, but while spectators the Games had their eyes on the athletes, Russian online surveillance kept a close eye on its international visitors.

“Those physically attending the games should be cognizant that their communications will likely be monitored,” said the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team in a statement released prior to the opening ceremonies. “It is important that attendees understand that communications while at the Games should not be considered private.”

The Official Olympic network provider, Avaya, called Sochi “the most connected Games ever,” according to PC Magazine, but as visitors and journalists discovered, that connectivity also came with a heavy dose of online surveillance courtesy of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

The nationwide system of legal interception in Russia is called the System for Operative and Investigative Activities, or SORM, which has also been called “PRISM” on steroids.” What separates SORM from the NSA’s PRISM is that in Russia, every telecom company is required by law to include communication interception equipment in its infrastructure.

SORM consists of three levels which allow the Russian FSB to monitor, intercept and block any communications sent electronically.

  • SORM-1: captures telephone and cellphone communications
  • SORM-2: intercepts internet traffic
  • SORM-3: collects information from all forms of communication and provides long-term storage of info and data, including actual recordings and locations of users. Data can be retained and analyzed for up to three years.

The result? Security services at the Games had access to visitors’ activity both during Olympics as well as existing data on their computers or cellphones—such as photos, documents or online history—that was brought into the country.

Given the lack of online privacy at the Games, NBC’s Richard Engel advised visitors to go as tech-free as possible. “The best way to protect yourself is really quite simple, if you don’t really need a device, try and avoid the public wifi and if there is anything particularly important on your computer or phone, banking information or photographs, remove it before coming to Russia,” he said in a special report on hacking at the Games.

Though online surveillance at the Winter Olympics has been tight, the New Yorker notes that all Olympic Games serve as a testing ground for surveillance and security measures. And  Sochi was no exception.

While the lack of online privacy at the 2014 Olympics  made headlines, how different is this from the digital surveillance that we endure everyday? Is it really possible to enjoy 100 per cent privacy on the internet anywhere in the world?

This past Sunday’s closing ceremonies signalled the end of the 2014 Olympics, but the issue of online privacy and digital surveillance were never limited to these Games. Stay tuned to rdigitaLIFE as we roll out our privacy series, produced for The Walrus, in the coming weeks to stay up-to-date on issues ranging from PRISM to Revenge Porn.


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