US athletes are being advised to leave their personal devices at home when they head to Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The Games are set to kick off with opening ceremonies on February 4, and will run until February 20.
The problem, according to the FBI, is that US athletes who make the trip will be walking into a perilous cybersecurity environment. The US government has become increasingly concerned about espionage and intellectual property theft that originates in China, and believes that the Chinese government could try to hack any personal devices that enter its borders.
With that in mind, the FBI is strongly encouraging athletes to not bring any devices that contain sensitive personal or corporate information, and to instead use temporary burner phones to communicate while they are abroad. The agency acknowledged that it is not aware of any specific cyberthreats, but is worried that China could still manage to steal valuable information from people who are not following cybersecurity best practices.
The FBI does provide defensive briefings for state officials and corporate professionals who could be high-priority targets for China. However, it may not be feasible to provide such briefings for all of the athletes and coaches on the US Olympic team, most of whom are ultimately rank-and-file civilians. Several other National Olympic Committees in the Western world have issued similar device recommendations to their athletes.
As it stands, the FBI is currently running more than 2,000 counterintelligence investigations into Chinese attempts to steal US technology. The agency also warned about the widespread use of facial recognition cameras in China’s extensive surveillance operations.
The Biden administration has not barred US athletes from competing, though it will not be sending an official government delegation. That decision was made due to concerns about alleged human rights abuses against China’s minority Uighur population, many of whom have been subjected to extreme biometric surveillance practices.