Beijing Winter Olympics stars robot chefs, surveillance app

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 3 February 2022 01:00 GMT

A robot moves through the hallway of a hotel spraying disinfectant against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, in Yanqing, China January 31, 2022. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

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Surveillance at the Winter Olympics is inevitable, tech experts warn, with robots and apps tracking visitors

By Rina Chandran

Feb 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The 2022 Winter Olympics is set to kick off in Beijing on Feb. 4 with an array of technologies aimed at greater convenience and safety for participants and visitors, but that can also pose privacy and security risks, rights experts warned.

Technology is a key part of China's strategy to control the coronavirus pandemic, including contact tracing apps, drones and robots. But privacy experts have warned that these measures have increased surveillance of residents.

All visitors to the Winter Olympics will be subject to technologies such as predictive policing in the "Orwellian surveillance state", Human Rights Watch said in a briefing, with athletes also facing penalties for speaking up on China's human rights abuses.

Michael Caster, Asia digital programme manager at human rights group Article 19, said that "China imposes among the most restrictive internet controls in the world, enforcing totalitarian control over expression and access to information online."

"These conditions will continue through the Games."

Here is a look at some of the technologies at the Beijing Winter Olympics that is expected to draw more than 2,000 international athletes, and 25,000 other stakeholders.

ROBOT CHEFS

Athletes and delegates can expect some of their food - as well as coffee and ice cream - to be prepared and served by robot chefs that were seen assembling hamburgers and delivering dishes to tables and room service orders.

Robots are also being used to transport equipment between venues, ensure social distancing, and to sanitise areas.

DIGITAL YUAN

The digital yuan, a central bank digital currency (CBDC), will be in use at the Olympics in the first major test of the virtual currency among foreigners after trials across China.

Visitors can download an app, get a digital yuan card, or convert foreign currency into e-CNY at vending machines. There are also wristbands that act as e-wallets and can be swiped to pay for items.

More than 90 countries are reported to be studying, testing or launching CBDCs, which authorities say can improve financial access and payment efficiency.

But CBDCs are also vulnerable to cyber attacks, data breaches and theft, and can increase surveillance, technology experts have warned.

APP SURVEILLANCE

The MY2022 app that attendees must use for daily COVID-19 monitoring contains security weaknesses that can expose users to data breaches including of their passport details and medical history, researchers at Citizen Lab said last month.

"As the app collects a range of highly sensitive medical information, it is unclear with whom or which organization(s) it shares this information," Toronto's Citizen Lab project said in a report.

The app also has censorship and surveillance keywords considered politically sensitive in China, and allows users to report other users' messages, according to Citizen Lab.

Authorities have said the main purpose of the app is to monitor people's health, and that it follows strict rules to protect data.

Separately, cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0 advised attendees to buy and take a new phone with them to use only while inside China to protect their SIM card information, and to create a new email address and browser account on the phone.

U.S. athletes at the Winter Olympics were encouraged to use a new device, and Dutch athletes have been told to leave their phones and laptops at home to avoid the risk of being spied on.

NO GREAT FIREWALL?

Authorities have pledged unrestricted internet access for foreign athletes at the Olympics, a rare break in the so-called Great Firewall of China that blocks access to popular messaging apps, social media platforms, search engines and websites deemed a threat to national security.

But using Chinese WiFi services to connect to WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter or YouTube - which are otherwise blocked in the country - will leave visitors susceptible to surveillance, tech experts have warned.

"The risk of surveillance is inevitable for visitors in China, and regardless of its promises Beijing is not going to allow unrestricted network access during the Olympics," said Caster at Article 19.

"If the International Olympic Committee is going to tout the Olympics WiFi, it should also support an effective, independent network security assessment."

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(Reporting by Rina Chandran in Bangkok @rinachandran; Editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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