Welcome to the Burner Phone Olympics
As professional big air snowboarder Julia Marino completed her final preparations for the Winter Olympics, US officials sent Marino and her teammates a word of caution about China’s surveillance apparatus. The athletes were warned not to take their personal phones to the games. “We are using burner phones while we’re going to be there,” Marino, a seven-time X Games medalist, said in an interview on Instagram. Athletes were also cautioned not to speak out against human rights abuses. “There has been discussion of what could happen if we do speak out,” Marino said in the interview.
As the Beijing Winter Olympics kick off, Marino isn’t alone. Thousands of foreign athletes, coaches, (some) diplomats, and members of the media are descending on the Chinese capital and taking extra measures to protect themselves from snooping by authoritarian law enforcement officials. That means burner laptops and phones to ensure sensitive data can’t be hoovered up, and self-censoring potential criticism of human rights abuses against the Muslim Uyghur population in the northwestern Xinjiang region.
A lot has changed since China last hosted the Olympics in the summer of 2008. The nation has evolved into a technological superpower, with advanced capabilities in everything from artificial intelligence to quantum computing. Its homegrown tech giants make products that have hundreds of millions of users and underpin the essential tasks in people’s daily lives. At the same time, technological surveillance and censorship of the country’s citizens is rife, China maintains a sophisticated group of state-backed hackers, and the UN has warned about the detention and treatment of Uyghurs.