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The FBI Warns Olympic Athletes of Cybersecurity Threats in China

The Emblem of Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games
BEIJING, CHINA – AUGUST 01: The Emblem of Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games is installed at Shijingshan district on August 1, 2021 in Beijing, China. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has urged Olympic athletes to leave their personal phones at home and instead take burner or temporary phones to the Beijing Winter Olympics this month, stating that there is potential for “malicious cyber activities.” 

They are currently unaware of “any specific cyber threat against the Olympics” or athletes, but that athletes and those at the games should err on the side of caution and “be vigilant and maintain best practice in their network and digital environments,” the FBI said. 

There is a broad range of cyber activities that can be undertaken to disrupt the Olympics, and athletes can be attacked personally by cybercriminals. The use of new digital infrastructure and mobile applications could also potentially increase the opportunity for cyber actors to steal personal information, or install tracking tools, malicious code, or malware, according to the FBI. 

In addition, the app that athletes are required to use while at the games, MY2022, has potential cyber risks, according to an analysis of the app by Citizen Lab.  

The app, which will be used during the Games to track athletes’ health and travel data, can be prone to data breaches and exploitation, as well as the potential risks of being expanded to a broader range of social and political surveillance, according to the analysis.  

Citizen Lab found a “simple but devastating flaw where encryption protecting users’ voice audio and file transfers can be trivially sidestepped” in the app. 

The warning issued by the FBI is not only made in response to cybercriminals—the warning to leave personal phones at home comes amid rising concerns from U.S. security officials about Chinese intellectual property theft, espionage, and theft of personal information.  

Within its borders, China has created an advanced surveillance state where cameras, facial recognition, and other technology are in use. Athletes, and those attending the games, may be subject to this surveillance and may face the risk of having their devices hacked and personal information stolen.  

The chance that personal devices may be hacked upon travel to China has been a risk warned by counterintelligence officials for a long time, especially for U.S. local and state officials and those in academia or business.  

According to FBI director Chis Wray, the FBI currently has over 2,000 counterintelligence investigations open that deal with alleged efforts by China to steal American intellectual property, especially as it relates to technology. 

In regards to potential Chinese intellectual property theft, Wray said “when we tally up what we see in our investigations, there is just no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, our innovation, and our economic security than China.”

In addition to the FBI’s warning to Olympic athletes, the National Olympic Committees of several Western countries have also urged their athletes to leave their personal devices at home and to use temporary phones due to cybersecurity concerns at the Beijing Games. 

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