Olympic Games: Major Sporting Events Promote Surveillance

At the start of the Olympic Games, Chinese bugging apps are being debated. Experts warn that there could be just as much surveillance at the Paris 2024 Games.

Anyone arriving is already scanned at the airport: cameras feed facial recognition systems with up-to-date images of those arriving. Only those who are not recognized have to line up in a queue to be checked by a human. Fans at the stadium entrance must remove their glasses, hats and scarves so that their faces can be automatically recognized.

And anyone who strolls through the streets of the city in the evening is monitored by cameras and microphones that sound an alarm if someone behaves suspiciously. If it gets louder than usual, the police send drones with cameras and send hundreds.

Does this description make you think of China, of the Olympic Games in Beijing? In fact, the examples come from France. These processes are being or have been tested there – partly in preparation for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. Radio France investigative journalists have researched a number of such experiments.  

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In Nice, for example, the emotions of tram passengers were automatically analyzed in order to predict possible conflicts. In Cannes, the city administration wanted to use cameras to check whether market visitors were wearing a mask during the pandemic. In Marseille, the old town has been equipped with around 50 intelligent cameras designed to recognize the behavior of passers-by.

The stadium example comes from Metz in northern France. The football club there denies using the facial recognition software purchased after the riots in 2016. But fans have doubts: Some were asked to take off glasses, hats or scarves when they entered the stadium, reports Radio France.

Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, a French MEP from the Green Party, fears a dystopian situation. "The Olympic Games in France will not involve less surveillance than those in China," she says. But these issues are much less discussed in Europe than the surveillance of the Olympians and the audience in China is currently.

"We tend to demonize China"

There is no question that the monitoring of visitors and athletes in Beijing is questionable. For example, all participants - active, public and press - must have the My2022 app on their mobile phone. They can use it to chat and receive information, but above all it is used to transmit the health information required by the corona pandemic to the authorities, such as passport data, travel and medical history. 

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An investigation by the Citizenlabfrom the University of Toronto not only revealed massive security gaps in the encryption of the data, but also showed an interest in political surveillance: The lab also found a list of more than 2,400 "forbidden words" in the app's code in a file called illegalwords.txt, which may be used to censor certain discussions and topics. However, the researchers emphasize that the feature is not active.

"Most importantly, the Citizen Lab has shown us that our fears and concerns are valid," Jon Callas, director of technology projects at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the British Guardian. So far, there is no evidence for the allegations by US security researcher Jonathan Scott that the app systematically records conversations in the area, which many of his colleagues have sharply criticized. It is undisputed that the app is problematic. Some national sports federations warn against taking your own mobile phone to China. Callas also says there are fears that the local authorities would be interested in address books and other information, such as personal data that travelers have stored on their cell phones.

The 2022 Winter Olympics

But he also says, "It's true that we tend to demonize China." Does the debate about surveillance in China obscure the problems on our own doorstep?

A study by the Greens in the European Parliament, which was presented on Thursday , shows how quickly biometric surveillance is also spreading in Europe . In it, the legal scholar Estelle de Marco and a cryptographic researcher, who appears under the pseudonym Aeris, have compiled data on surveillance in Europe and collected case studies in France, Great Britain and Romania.

Although China is the global leader with more than 50 percent of the approximately 770 million surveillance cameras installed worldwide, European countries are catching up: while there are an average of 3.84 surveillance cameras per 1,000 inhabitants in Paris, London has an impressive number of 73.31 cameras – and is therefore the "best monitored city in Europe", according to the study authors. Berlin has 6.25 cameras per 1,000 inhabitants.

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In addition to the sheer number of cameras, how they work is crucial. In fact, they are often prone to errors. According to the survey, the facial recognition system of the London police recognizes the wanted persons with an accuracy of 19 percent, "which means that 81 percent of the 'suspects' are innocent". For these innocent victims, this may end in frequent checks or even restrictions on their freedom of movement.

Governments often claim that the new algorithmic surveillance technologies will help stop terrorists - but there is no evidence that mass biometric surveillance has ever stopped terrorists, says MP Delbos-Corfield. "The natural use of this technology assumes that security in our society is more important than freedom." In fact, the right to privacy is restricted and human dignity is violated "when people are constantly monitored".

Surveillance companies are positioning themselves

In addition, surveillance in public spaces is often implemented in a non-transparent manner and without debate in parliament, criticizes the Green MEP. In France, for example, often by decrees. The researchers write that the pandemic is also being used as an excuse. For example, the police in France have used drones to monitor demonstrations and facial recognition in metro stations to identify citizens who are not wearing masks. Both experiments were stopped by the French data protection authority.

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Sporting events, such as the Olympics or the soccer World Cup, are often used as an excuse to further strengthen mass surveillance, says Patrick Breyer, a member of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament. That is hardly better in Europe than in China or in Qatar, where the World Cup will be held in November. On the contrary: the monitoring measures used there could arouse the desires of those responsible in Europe. The fact that the organizers of the games in Paris are already examining the possibility of using biometric mass surveillance is a clear sign of this.

According to sociologist Félix Tréguer of the Center for International Studies (CERI) in Paris, French suppliers of surveillance technology are already positioning themselves: Some appear to have already set up a committee and are negotiating contracts with the interior ministry, he told Radio France.

Neither the Ministry of the Interior nor the companies were particularly impressed that some of the experiments were stopped by the French data protection authority CNIL: They simply relocated them abroad.

"The CNIL rejected these experiments in France," said Tréguer. "Following this, the Interior Ministry reached an agreement with Interpol and the Singapore government so that it could take place in a transport center in the city-state." 

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