The Olympics in Beijing were already under fire for the country's policies regarding its Uighur minority, but now its internal Olympics protocol is also under the spotlight.
As the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing approaches, China finds itself at the centre of controversy. Numerous countries including Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced boycotting China as a reaction to Beijing’s policies.
The diplomatic boycott was prompted by China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and “other human rights abuses," as the US put. China is blamed for mass imprisonment, torture and survelliance of hundreds of thousands of people belonging to the Muslim minority.
As Beijing’s policies regarding the Uighurs continue, however, international athletes who will participate in the Winter Games also find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
The mandatory smartphone app
Ahead of the games scheduled to begin on February 4, China has mandated a smartphone app called MY2022 for use by all attendees, including athletes, of the 2022 Olympic Games.
The app stores health data and is aimed at controlling Covid-19 outbreaks by helping to connect participants and government officials in case of an emergency.
An independent report by Citizen Lab, an internet watchdog group, however, warned that the app had a “simple but devastating flaw”: Failing to protect its users’ highly sensitive health data.
The group found that the app’s encryption meant to protect the users’ voice audio and file transfers “can be trivially sidestepped,” while some sensitive data are not encrypted at all. Among vulnerable information are passport details, demographic information, and medical and travel history.
The findings raised concerns about surveillance by China, a country that has the largest and most sophisticated surveillance systems.
One of systems that was criticised the most was a face-scanning technology that is able to classify people and detect journalists and other "people of concern".
The Citizen Lab said the app included features that allow users to report “politically sensitive” expressions and a censored keywords list targeting topics including the Xinjiang region.
While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said the smartphone app was not compulsory, the official guidance still says all, including journalists and coaches, must download the smartphone app 14 days prior to their departure to the country. Many countries have previously advised their athletes not to use smartphones as a precaution to protect their personal data.
A cyber security firm, Internet 2.0, advised the athletes to bring burner phones to the games and create email accounts for their time in China.
No political comments
Human rights and advocacy groups warned competitors on Tuesday not to make remarks regarding China’s human rights abuses, especially Uighur Muslims ahead of the games, citing security concerns.
The statement came after tennis star, Peng Shuai, briefly disappeared after she posted a detailed online statement accusing the country’s former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli.
Yaqiu Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, said the incident was “a good indicator of what could possibly happen” if athletes made any statement that could anger the officials.
Dr Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch also pointed out that the athletes will face an “Orwellian surveillance state” equipped with high technology.
“Anyone who’s travelling to the country for these games – journalists, athletes, coaches – needs to be aware that this kind of surveillance could affect them,” Richardson said.
Shortly after the human rights advocates’ warning, the organising committee of the olympics has warned athletes against not protecting the games spirit in response to a reporter’s question about a possible boycott by an athlete.
“Any behaviour or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment,” Yang Shu, the deputy director of international relations for the Beijing organising committee said on Tuesday.