Paul Farhi: Why Journalists Are Taking Burner Phones to the Beijing Olympics

From a Washington Post story by media reporter Paul Farhi headlined “Why journalists are taking burner phones to the Beijing Olympics”:

Journalists covering the Winter Olympics next month say they’ll do their work in Beijing on new cellphones and laptops. When the games are over, they’ll simply leave them behind or throw them away.

The reason: Reporters are concerned that any devices they use there could become infected with tracking software, enabling Chinese authorities to spy on their contents. Hence, the use of “burner” phones and computers.

The better-safe-than-sorry measure highlights the wariness among some of the thousands of journalists who are expecting chilly working conditions in the Chinese capital, and not just because of the subfreezing temperatures on the ski slopes.

Local organizers, in concert with the International Olympic Committee, have imposed the tightest restrictions on reporters ever for an Olympics, which begin Feb. 4. The IOC says the measures are necessary to prevent the spread of covid-19, which was first detected in China’s Hubei province in late 2019.

But others view the measures as a pretext for what the Communist government has long sought to do: control China’s image by suppressing independent reporting.

“It’s naive to think the pandemic hasn’t played right into China’s hands,” said Christine Brennan, a USA Today sports columnist for whom the Beijing games will be her 20th Olympics. “They would have wanted to control us, anyway. This just gives them another excuse. China will be China.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists cast the situation in Orwellian terms. “Assume your hotel room is under surveillance,” the New York-based advocacy group warned in a “safety advisory” last week. “Assume that everything you do online will be monitored. Any call made using a hotel landline or cell phone is not encrypted and can be intercepted. . . . Any conversation you have in your hotel room may be subject to eavesdropping.”

Despite China’s promise to treat reporters according to IOC rules, many remain skeptical. China routinely ranks near the bottom among all nations in an annual press-freedom index and at the very top in jailing domestic journalists. It has imposed a media blackout in a western territory, Xinjiang, where international rights groups have alleged abuses of its Muslim Uyghur population — the reason the United States and several other countries have declined to send diplomatic delegations to this year’s Olympics. Chinese authorities have also cracked down on independent news organizations in Hong Kong, arresting their managers and journalists.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China said that international journalists have been routinely barred from Olympics-related events such as the arrival of the Olympic torch, and prevented from visiting venues — all in violation of pre-Olympic guarantees. Some report being harassed or followed by security officials when they attempted to visit facilities.

Chinese officials have cited coronavirus precautions, but the correspondents group said the actions appear to be part of a deliberate campaign. Organizers frequently announce events just a few hours beforehand, the organization said, making it impossible for reporters to submit a negative coronavirus test in time to gain admittance. Officials sometimes don’t bother announcing events at all.

An IOC representative said that the IOC had discussed the foreign-correspondent group’s concerns with Beijing officials and that there had been “progress” toward resolving them. “We promised to continue addressing any issues raised.”…

Reporters, athletes and officials are required to stay within a protective bubble — known as “the closed loop” — for the duration of the two-week event. Once in the bubble, they can only move between designated hotels and official venues via cars, buses and rail lines controlled by the Beijing Olympic Committee.

Organizers will also require participants to upload personal health information, such as their temperature or possible covid-19 symptoms, to a special app each day. The self-reporting starts two weeks before traveling to Beijing and continues throughout the Olympics.

What becomes of this information is up to the Chinese organizers. As the IOC’s official “playbook” for all participants notes, “Personal data will be processed in accordance with applicable laws and regulations” by the Beijing organizing committee, the Chinese National Government, local authorities and the IOC. A Canadian cybersecurity research group, Citizen Lab, reported this week that the app has a “devastating flaw” that could expose users’ medical and passport information, and has a feature that identifies keywords, such as “Xinjiang,” that could help officials identify critics.

That is why burner devices start to look like a sensible alternative.

In addition to using a new phone and laptop, USA Today’s Brennan said, she intends to keep her devices’ camera lenses covered when not in use, after hearing warnings that hackers can manipulate cameras from afar to surveil a user.

Another veteran sportswriter recalled an incident that he suggests should serve as a warning to reporters. During a 2007 trip to report on preparations for the 2008 Summer Olympics in China, he returned to his hotel at the end of the day to find that someone had rifled through his belongings, including his laptop.

The journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the identity of Chinese nationals who aided his reporting, dismissed the episode as would-be petty theft. But colleagues later told him that clandestine searches of journalists’ possessions by state security agents aren’t unusual in China.

When he returned to cover the Olympics a year later, he carried his laptop with him at all times.

All told, the measures spelled out in the IOC’s playbook ensure that reporters will have a highly restricted view of life in Beijing. They won’t have direct contact with any Chinese citizens outside the bubble nor will they be able to see much beyond officially authorized work spaces and hotels. Even spectators at Olympic events will be off limits to reporters, according to the playbook.

Roxanna Scott, managing editor for sports at USA Today, which is sending 25 people to Beijing, said the restrictions will limit “our ability to tell stories we’d normally share regarding the host city, the color of the neighborhoods, and how the Games are perceived by the people.”

In 2008, Western journalists reported on the plight of Beijing residents whose neighborhood were razed to built Olympic arenas. But those kinds of stories “will be difficult when we are limited to the official hotels and venues,” acknowledged Washington Post deputy sports editor Matt Rennie, who is coordinating the newspaper’s Olympic coverage.

The news organization that is expected to have the largest contingent in Beijing, NBC News, did not respond to requests for comment. The news division’s parent company, NBC Universal, paid $7.75 billion to the IOC in 2014 for the exclusive American media rights to six Summer and Winter Olympics from 2022 through 2032, or about $1.3 billion per Olympiad.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post’s media reporter. He started at The Post in 1988 and has been a financial reporter, a political reporter and a Style reporter.

Speak Your Mind

*