Olympic burner phones? Athletes warned about bringing personal devices to China for 2022 Beijing Games

·3 min read

Olympic athletes from several countries – including the United States – are being encouraged to leave their personal cell phones and laptops at home next month due to cyber surveillance concerns at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant first reported Tuesday that the Dutch Olympic Committee is "anticipating Chinese surveillance during the Games" and has therefore instructed athletes to not bring their personal electronic devices to Beijing. Spokespeople for the British Olympic Association and the Australian Olympic Committee have since told The Guardian and The Age, respectively, that they made similar recommendations to their athletes.

"We’ve reminded all Team Canada members that the Olympic Games present a unique opportunity for cybercrime," the Canadian Olympic Committee said in a statement, "and recommended that they be extra diligent at Games, including considering leaving personal devices at home, limiting personal information stored on devices brought to the Games, and to practice good cyber-hygiene at all times."

Meanwhile, a technology bulletin distributed by Team USA states that rental/disposable computers and "burner phones" are "encouraged" for members of its delegation.

"Like computers, the data and applications on cell phones are subject to malicious intrusion, infection and data compromise," Team USA's advisory states.

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U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee spokesperson Jon Mason added that the USOPC has worked with individual national governing bodies (NGBs) individually to determine the best course of action for each group. Each winter sport has a NGB that is responsible for its athletes.

A woman checks her phone in front of an installation of Shuey Rhon Rhon, mascot of the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympic Games at the Olympic Park in Beijing on January 13, 2022.
A woman checks her phone in front of an installation of Shuey Rhon Rhon, mascot of the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympic Games at the Olympic Park in Beijing on January 13, 2022.

The Beijing 2022 organizing committee said in a statement that "the Chinese government attaches great importance to the protection of personal information."

"Personal information collected by Beijing 2022 will not be disclosed unless the disclosure is necessary," the organizing committee said. "Information of accredited media representatives will only be used for purposes related to the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games."

The technology guidance from national Olympic committees ahead of the Beijing Games is abnormal but in line with the recommendations that governments usually make for travelers who are visiting China.

The U.S. Department of State, for example, writes in its travel advisory for China that "security personnel carefully watch foreign visitors."

"Hotel rooms (including meeting rooms), offices, cars, taxis, telephones, Internet usage, ​digital payments, and fax machines may be monitored onsite or remotely, and personal possessions in hotel rooms, including computers, may be searched without your consent or knowledge," the State Department advisory reads.

Team USA's technology advisory suggests that Olympic participants use rental/disposable laptops and phones while in China or, at minimum, wipe all personal data from the devices before arrival and upon departure. The advisory also recommends using virtual private networks (VPNs).

"Despite any and all safeguards that are put in place to protect the systems and data that are brought to China, it should be assumed that all data and communications in China can be monitored, compromised or blocked," the bulletin states.

Athletes will begin arriving in Beijing for the Games later this month. The opening ceremony is Feb. 4.

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2022 Olympics in China: Athletes warned over personal phones in Beijing