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Why the FBI has been telling athletes heading to the Olympics to bring a burner phone


The Winter Olympics are now underway, and the FBI has been telling athletes heading to Beijing to bring burner phones. That's probably not something on the packing list for most Olympic Games, but the situation in China is unique. NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin joins us to talk about the digital threats that might pop up during the games. Hey, Jenna.


SHAPIRO: Why is the FBI telling people to pack burner phones for Beijing?

MCLAUGHLIN: So basically, the FBI is warning athletes that in China, they should have no expectation of privacy. It's a sophisticated, modern surveillance state that has facial recognition, video cameras everywhere, and web traffic is tightly monitored. So if you bring your personal cell phone or connect to the free Wi-Fi that China's offering to athletes, the FBI says you should expect all of that data to be vulnerable. And for that reason, some countries have already been handing out burner phones to athletes preemptively. An official Olympics app called My 2022 also raised some controversy about privacy, though most of the information that's shared there is already accessible to Chinese authorities and a central database.

So what it comes down to is that these threats to privacy are present for anybody traveling to China these days, particularly journalists, given the political environment and the government's desire to exercise control. Meanwhile, big events like the Olympics face all kinds of other digital threats beyond these individual privacy concerns.

SHAPIRO: Like what?

MCLAUGHLIN: So honestly, it's like a perfect storm for bad guys who want to take advantage of all the fanfare for their own purposes. First, if cybercriminals launched a ransomware attack that prevented live broadcasts of events during the pandemic, criminals might be hoping that they'd be desperate enough to pay to avoid embarrassment. There's lots of personal information out there floating on athletes and journalists, and hacktivists also might want to draw attention to human rights abuses, including the Uyghur camps in Xinjiang, a talking point China desperately wants to avoid. I spoke to Charity Wright, an analyst at cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, who's monitoring those activist groups on social media. Listen to this.

CHARITY WRIGHT: We haven't seen hacktivists in the criminal underground speaking about planned attacks, but there has been quite a lot of activity in social media from certain groups that have an interest in bringing up human rights abuses and issues with the Chinese Communist Party.

SHAPIRO: Let me ask you about Russia, because officially Russia is banned by the Olympic Committee for doping. Putin and Xi put out a statement today pledging alignment. Do your sources think that Russia could see these games as ripe for a cyberattack?

MCLAUGHLIN: So that's a great question, Ari. Russia does have a track record of launching cyberattacks during the Olympics. It's a matter of national pride for Putin after his athletes were punished. Although, they do still compete, just not under the official banner of Russia. In 2018, in South Korea, they shut off the entire IT setup during the opening ceremonies, and they blamed it on North Korean hackers. Although Charity Wright, the intelligence analyst, said her team thinks the Russians and other states that might be capable of causing destruction, like Iran and North Korea, might hesitate this time to launch cyberattacks because Beijing is hosting. Take a listen to this.

WRIGHT: So it's in their best interest as a friend of China to not only allow it to go on undisrupted, but to help even facilitate that to go well.

MCLAUGHLIN: So China's definitely trying to show itself as a global power, and that means any cyberattack or disruption could spoil that image.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Jenna McLaughlin, our cyber security correspondent, thanks a lot.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.
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