Thoughts on the Olympics and Cybersecurity

The Winter Olympics in China opens Friday.  For the next 3 weeks, all sporting eyes will be on the exciting competition there.  Who will ski the fastest?  Who will win the biathlon?

While most will be watching the on-field events, some of us will be looking at the off-field complexities of working in China and maintaining cybersecurity.   American athletes have been advised to bring new burner devices that they can discard when they return.  British athletes will be issued clean phones. Rumors abound that the app Olympians and others must download is full of security flaws that may cause sensitive data to be intercepted.

Meanwhile, major technology companies will face (as they always do) the challenges of working in China.  The Bing search engine is censored.  Amazon Web Services are localized in China. Data crossing American corporate networks is fodder for China’s surveillance state.  The International Olympic Committee supports the suppression of non-sport-related speech and China warns of dire consequences if there are political disruptions of its showcase event.

And so, the Olympics perfectly captures the difficulty of working in China.  You can’t be in the market if you aren’t willing to accept the limits that China imposes.  To gain access to the Chinese market, many American tech companies develop and sell products in partnership with Chinese companies or to Chinese government agencies – and accept the reality that their technology may be used for authoritarian purposes.  Even if that were an acceptable standard for Chinese nationals (it isn’t but let’s leave that aside for the moment) it becomes deeply problematic when Western corporations become complicit in China’s repression.   Which begs the question:  Will American tech – or technology American companies helped develop – be used to spy on American athletes?



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