The Dutch Olympic Committee (NOCNSF) has asked the country’s athletes, who are participating in the 2022 Winter Olympics scheduled in Beijing next month, to leave their laptops and phones at their homes to avoid the possibility of Chinese espionage.
In total, 30 athletes from the Netherlands are due to compete in the Winter Olympics, with most of them taking part in skating events. All team members who are part of the trip will be given unused devices while in China to protect their data from any prying eyes. Upon their return to the Netherlands, the devices will be destroyed.
In a comment to a local newspaper, NOCNSF spokesman Geert Slot stated that cybersecurity was one of the factors considered in the risk assessment made for the athletes’ trip to China. “The importance of cybersecurity of course has grown over the years… But China has completely closed off its internet, which makes it a specific case,” Slot said.
The NOCNSF decision did not go well with the Chinese authorities. Communist Party-run media outlet Global Times published an article on Jan. 12 which claimed that the Dutch move was a “petty trick that can hardly make waves.” A professor from a Chinese university accused the Netherlands of “learning from typical propaganda” of the U.S.-led intelligence alliance Five Eyes.
“Do either NOCNSF or certain Dutch politicians have the nerve to publicly ask athletes to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics? Obviously no. That’s why we are hearing lame excuses such as the so-called Chinese espionage, raised by the Netherlands, or the call to avoid Chinese meat, voiced by the German Anti-Doping Agency (NADA), for possible clenbuterol contamination,” the article claims.
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It is not just the Netherlands that has warned athletes heading to the Winter Olympics about China’s espionage threat. A tech bulletin distributed by Team USA encouraged athletes to use burner phones and disposable/rental computers. Data on personal cell phones and laptops are subject to “malicious intrusion, infection, and data compromise,” it stated.
The bulletin advised athletes to delete all data from devices while in China as well as during departure. Team USA members are also encouraged to use VPNs.
“Despite any and all safeguards that are put in place to protect the systems and data that are brought to China, it should be assumed that all data and communications in China can be monitored, compromised, or blocked,” the bulletin warned.
Athletes from Canada have also been advised to be extra cautious about Chinese cyber-surveillance while in the Asian country for the Olympics. Pascale St-Onge, sports minister of Canada, said that the administration is working with the Olympic and Paralympic committees, developing a “solid” plan to ensure the protection of athletes from espionage and other threats.
“The athletes are receiving briefings about security… Cybersecurity is part of the briefings that the athletes are receiving… We are well aware of the espionage and all these issues with China,” she said in an interview with The Canadian Press. She refused to share information on the operational planning to protect athletes due to security reasons.