With the security apparatus in place for the London Olympics, due to begin next week, Katitza Rodriguez and Rebecca Bowe look at how intense surveillance can threaten privacy long after the games are over
This article originally appeared in Index on Censorship magazine’s Sport on Trial issue (May 2012), with an updated version available here
London will shortly take centre stage when it hosts the 2012 Summer Olympics — and while international broadcasting networks aim their lenses at world-class athletes, a proliferation of surveillance technologies and security cameras will track the movements of spectators and residents. With security costs approaching £1 billion (US$1.6 billion), considerably higher than originally estimated, this year’s Olympic Games is on track to be one of the most heavily surveilled in the Games’s history.
With surveillance and security around the Olympics intensifying from country to country, purportedly to prevent terrorism and serious crimes, activists are increasingly concerned about a growing trend: once the Games are finished, authorities rarely cut back on public surveillance. And with the pricey new infrastructure installed for good, individuals’ rights to personal privacy are at risk of being permanently diminished.
London already bears distinction among privacy watchdogs as being one of the most closely surveilled cities in the world, yet routine security practices pale in comparison with the exhaustive measures to be imposed during the 2012 Summer Olympics. Surveillance and security measures were recently described in the UK’s Independent newspaper as the ‘biggest operation since the Second World War’ to be undertaken by UK intelligence agency MI5. Plans call for the installation of a new monitoring and intelligence gathering system, plus the mobilisation of nearly all of MI5’s 3,800 agents. While details of the intelligence-gathering programme remain classified, it appears to be intended for long-term use.
As London beefs up its security infrastructure, meanwhile, Brazil has already begun mapping out a security strategy in anticipation of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The situation there is shaping up to be another cause for concern, particularly because the government seems eager to follow London’s lead – and Rio is also one of the most surveilled cities in democratic countries around the world. According to Agence France Presse (AFP) reporter Javier Tovar, Brazilian security agencies plan to use surveillance drones, tough border controls and IP-based surveillance systems during the 2016 Olympics.
Brazil will also host the World Cup in 2014, run by the international governing body for football, FIFA. For both competitions, most of the events will take place in poor urban suburbs of Brazilian cities, where the homicide rate is among the highest in South America. Because of rising crime rates, the announcement that Brazil will host these high-profile sporting events led to a spike in Brazil’s video surveillance market, according to market analyst firm 6Wresearch. The surveillance measures are largely going unchallenged — there seems to be little public debate or attention focused on these issues or the privacy implications they present.
Brazil’s video surveillance market generated US$124.96 million in 2011 and is expected to reach $362.69 million by 2016, research analysts predicted, with a compounded annual growth rate of nearly 24 per cent from 2011 to 2016. 6Wresearch expects “a shift towards more secured IP-based surveillance systems” since advantages include “low cost, video analytics, remote accessibility and [are] easy to integrate with wireless networks”.
No sooner had Rio been selected for the 2016 Olympic Games than the US government sought to strike a partnership with the Brazilian government on security and information-sharing strategies, according to secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. In December 2009, the US embassy in Brazil sent a cable to the US government entitled, “The future is now”. The message encouraged the US to use the Olympic Games to justify the expansion of its influence over Brazil’s critical infrastructure development and cyber security measures. By highlighting concerns about the possibility of power outages or breakdowns in infrastructure, particularly in the months leading up to the Games, the US government could justify a bid for increased co-operation with Brazil on counterterrorism activities. There were “opportunities for engagement on infrastructure development” and “possibly cyber security”, the cable stated. In a second cable, sent on 24 December 2009, the embassy again emphasised its interest in broadening US objectives in Brazil. “Taking advantage of the Games to work security issues should be a priority, as should co-operation on cybercrime and broader information security,” it read.
In the lengthy diplomatic exchanges between the US embassy in Brazil and the US government, the absence of any reference to the very serious privacy, civil liberties and public accountability implications of widespread surveillance technologies stood out as a glaring omission. The same could be said for current public discourse in Brazil. So far, there has not been any significant criticism of the security and surveillance measures being introduced — in marked contrast to the UK, where privacy campaigners have been active.
Brazil’s safeguards for privacy in the face of such pressure aren’t especially promising. There is a need for an impact assessment to evaluate whether cameras installed to help combat crime in Rio are actually needed and to ensure that these intrusive measures do not become an Olympic Games legacy, especially if there are less intrusive methods of combatting serious crimes. There is no legislation pertaining to the privacy of personal information in Brazil, but a draft bill that, if introduced, would protect the collection, use and disclosure of this information is under consideration. It remains to be seen whether the bill will bypass privacy protections by allowing exemptions — namely, databases created for the sole purposes of public security, national security or law enforcement activities.
It’s too early to say exactly what security and privacy protocols Brazil will keep once the 2016 Summer Olympic Games end, or to what extent the Brazilian government will agree to go along with an agenda carved out by the US. But if history is any guide, there is reason to believe that a surveillance regime ushered in by the Olympics will continue to pose threats to individual privacy well into the future. Privacy advocates, having assessed the range of measures implemented in connection with previous Olympic Games, warn of a “climate of fear and surveillance” that could have a detrimental effect on “democracy, transparency, and international and national human rights law”.
But the proliferation of surveillance technology around the Olympics is hardly new. Greece’s contract with technology company SAIC called for the creation and support of a C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence) system to “allow Greek authorities to collect, analyse, and disseminate information” by leveraging SAIC’s expertise in telecommunications, wireless communications and video surveillance. The technology blends the use of data-mining, data-matching, and profiling capabilities. Those researching this area have referred to the adoption of such security measures as an emergence of a “super-panopticon” and a “marriage of camera, computers and databases”.
One report revealed that Greek law enforcement and intelligence agencies installed more than 1,000 surveillance cameras in Athens in advance of the 2004 Summer Olympics – and then continued to make use of them for policing purposes long after athletes and spectators had packed up and left. While the stated purpose for the continued use of the cameras in Greece was to monitor high-traffic roadways, the report found that they were actually employed to monitor public spaces – including during political demonstrations. This revelation triggered heated exchanges between law enforcement officials and the Greek Data Protection Authority, leading to the resignation of the authority’s head, Dimitris Gourgourakis, and his deputies. At the time, Gourgourakis stated that police use of surveillance cameras ‘directly breached’ privacy regulations. In 2007, the country’s data protection law was amended to exempt surveillance cameras from its privacy provisions.
The use of surveillance cameras in Athens barely registers in comparison with the all-out monitoring campaign Chinese authorities implemented in 2008, when the Olympic Games were held in Beijing. Chinese authorities installed a whopping 200,000 cameras and employed other surveillance measures in an effort to make Beijing secure. And, in a move that drew widespread condemnation, the Chinese government ordered foreign-owned hotels to install internet monitoring equipment to spy on hotel guests.
When it was announced that Vancouver had won the bid for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Canadian civil society organisations feared a repeat of the privacy-invading security measures adopted by Greece and China. Privacy advocates called for the government to remain open and transparent about the necessary security and surveillance practices that were planned; they called for a full, independent public assessment of these measures after the Games and sought to prevent “a permanent legacy of increased video surveillance” and other security measures. “It is already clear that the event allowed for new surveillance technologies to gain a foothold in Vancouver that would never otherwise have been accepted,” noted Tamir Israel of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic.
In the run up to the Games, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, in conjunction with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia, issued recommendations to prevent security measures from unduly infringing on individual’s rights. “The duty of governments to provide for the security of citizens must, in democratic societies, be tempered by the values that underpin our way of life,” said Jennifer Stoddart, Privacy Commissioner of Canada. “The right to privacy must be upheld, even during mega-events like the Olympic games, where the threat to security is higher than usual.” At this critical juncture, the agencies seeking to implement security measures in London and Rio would do well to heed her words. Unfortunately, the message did not get through.
Violations of individuals’ privacy can range from the loss of anonymity in public places to the inability to communicate and associate freely with others. The capabilities of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) have risen dramatically, and due to the technology’s relative affordability, street cameras are now everywhere. Technological advances make it possible for CCTV to perform surveillance tasks similar to electronic wiretapping, intelligence sharing and identification systems that link images not stored on databases with images that have actually been archived. Given the prevalence of this technology and how easy it’s become to identify one unnamed face amidst thousands, individuals who care about anonymity will have a very difficult time protecting their identity in the imminent future.
While it’s important to take security precautions prior to the Olympics, these actions should not result in the implementation of public surveillance without regard for personal privacy. It’s crucial that the public scrutinise the security and privacy measures the Brazilian government is considering. There must be an informed and open debate about privacy and security.
Most importantly, the public has a right to know whether enhanced security measures will be reversed after the games. The true spirit of the Olympics as an opportunity for cultural exchange ought to be preserved. Using the Games as an excuse for trampling civil liberties violates this spirit.
Katitza Rodriguez is international rights director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). She tweets at @txitua. Rebecca Bowe is international privacy coordinator at EFF. She tweets at @ByRebeccaBowe.