Russia's Sochi Games: Why you may want to leave your laptop at home

A new report says Russia will be able to read every phone and Internet communication sent at the Olympics with a surveillance system some are calling 'PRISM on steroids.'

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (c.) smiles as he lights the Olympic flame at Red Square in Moscow on Sunday.

Visitors to the upcoming Sochi Winter Games will be able to access Internet services that are faster and more widely available than at any previous Olympics, and it will all be provided to guests free of charge.

But all that connectivity may come with a hidden price. Russia's FSB security service is reportedly installing a sweeping and invasive surveillance system, which security experts have dubbed "PRISM on steroids," to ensure that they will be able to intercept, read, and even filter every single digital communication passing through the city's telephone and Internet networks during the Games.

Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan have detailed these unprecedented measures on their security-oriented website and in a weekend article for Britain's Guardian newspaper.

They report that the FSB has modernized its national electronic surveillance system SORM and modified all telephone and Wi-Fi systems around Sochi in order to ensure full access to all traffic and force servers to disable encryption systems. "It means customers could use wireless encryption in public to secure their communications against casual eavesdropping by hackers but the FSB would still be able to intercept the traffic," they say.

Citing a US State Department warning that travelers to Sochi might consider leaving their laptops and smart phones at home, Mr. Soldatov says that "that's probably good advice."

"The system of surveillance in Sochi has been updated with many new cutting-edge technologies. The shift in the borders of privacy is quite dramatic compared to the London or Beijing Olympics," he says.

According to documents Soldatov has seen, the Russian telecommunications giant Rostelecom is installing DPI [Deep Packet Inspection] on all its mobile networks, which will enable the FSB not only to read all messages, but also to alter them and reroute them at will.

At a press conference last week devoted to security measures for Sochi, FSB official Alexei Lavrishev derided fears that visitors might find their privacy violated.

"Security measures will be aimed at creating a comfortable environment for guests and participants of the Games," Mr. Lavrishev insisted.

He said that the most recent Olympics, in London last year, featured far more oppressive security tactics than Sochi will have.

"Did you know that [in London] there were antiaircraft guns and snipers on the roofs? Remember how citizens of London protested, and sued [over the measures], but the courts dismissed their claims? The military patrolled the city streets. Video surveillance cameras were mounted everywhere, even, excuse me, in the toilets. None of this will happen in Sochi. Our security, trust me, will be invisible and unnoticeable," he said.

Sochi will feature massive video surveillance, according to Soldatov, with 5,500 cameras mounted around the Olympic sites, including over 300 that will be manned exclusively by the FSB.

Drones, which were not used in London, will reportedly patrol the air over Sochi, manned by FSB and Interior Ministry security teams.

One surprising development, Soldatov says, is that the Kremlin did not name an antiterrorism veteran to head Sochi security measures, despite President Vladimir Putin's repeated warnings that the Games could be disrupted by terrorists from the nearby northern Caucasus.

In fact, Mr. Putin appointed the FSB's longstanding head of counterintelligence, Oleg Syromolotov, to handle Sochi security.

"It's quite a thought-provoking appointment, because it should have seemed logical to give that job to an antiterrorism specialist, but instead Putin gave it to a guy who's spent his entire career hunting down foreign spies," Soldatov says. "Does this mean that the Kremlin sees the main threat to the Olympics coming from foreign spies, and not from terrorists?"

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