As world watches Sochi, Russia watches the watchers

Reports suggest neither guests' laptops nor their bathrooms are safe from the eyes of Russian security.

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP
Two cross-country skiers train beneath a security camera in Sochi, Russia, on Tuesday. As the Sochi Games get underway today, Russian surveillance is ubiquitous and pervasive.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Where is Sochi? The town sits on the north shore of the Black Sea. A beach resort has been transformed to play host to the 2014 Olympic Games.

As the world's eyes turn to Sochi for today's gala opening of the Olympic Winter Games, a good deal of evidence is piling up about about the massive scope of Russian security's take-no-chances efforts to keep tabs on every single visitor, pretty much all of the time.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, the official most responsible for overseeing Olympic preparations, didn't help matters much by seeming to tell journalists Thursday that Russian security has even planted surveillance cameras in their hotel bathrooms. 

According to The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Kozak was in the midst of a somewhat justified rant about the Western media's tendency to focus on (sometimes fake) minor shortcomings rather than pay some notice to the dazzling, ultra-modern facilities Russia has created for the Games, when he veered into speculation that some foreign guests might be committing deliberate sabotage to make things look bad.

Then he is quoted as saying: "We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall and then leave the room for the whole day."


The Journal adds that Kozak's aides quickly pulled him away, forestalling any further questions. A spokesman for Kozak later told journalists there were no such surveillance cameras in hotel bathrooms "for guests," but suggested they might have been used during the construction phase to keep an eye on workers.

Another example is a sharp piece of journalism by NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel, who brought an IT expert with him to Sochi to find out how long it would take for his computers and cell phone to be hacked. The answer: "almost immediately."

Within seconds of switching on two brand-new computers, they were hijacked, Mr. Engel told NBC news. "In a minute, hackers were snooping around, trying to see how secure the machines were."

Then he received an official-looking email, purporting to contain important information for journalists covering the Games. When he opened it, a sophisticated Trojan took control of the laptop.

"The same thing happened with my cellphone. It was very fast and very professional.... The State Department warns that travelers should have no expectation of privacy. Even in their hotel rooms. And as we found out, you are especially exposed as soon as you try and communicate with anything," Engel said.

The scope of Russia's massive "ring of steel" security program aimed at keeping the Olympics safe from very real terrorist threats have been known for some time. Top security experts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan of the online journal have detailed a broad program of digital surveillance overseen by Russia's FSB security service that will collect all essential data on every participant, journalist, and guest attending the Games and leave no message, in or out, unread.

Mr. Soldatov argues that much of the data-harvesting has nothing to do with fighting terrorism and everything to do with spying on foreigners. He also points out that, despite its best efforts, the FSB's capabilities still do not match those of Western intelligence agencies such as the NSA and GCHQ, who've been exposed in great depth for indiscriminate mass spying by the revelations of Edward Snowden.

Following Soldatov's expose of the Sochi security plan, the official Voice of Russia radio station reassured its foreign listeners who might be thinking of visiting Sochi that there was nothing to worry about, because the surveillance is for everybody's own protection and, anyway, Russian secret services are not as "aggressive" as their US counterparts.

Indeed, it might be useful to ask whether Russia's security precautions for Sochi are particularly out of the ordinary for international events like this. This article from the Guardian almost two years ago described a security lockdown for the 2012 London Games that sounds every bit as pervasive and intrusive as what we're seeing in Sochi today.

"It's true that we saw most of the same things taking place in London," says Soldatov. "The main difference is that public opinion was engaged, and officials did respond to it. For instance, when there was a public outcry against using drones in London, the authorities backtracked and drones were not deployed.... Here in Russia we are not seeing any public debate about this at all. Public opinion just does not figure for our authorities, and that's a worrisome thing."

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