Journal of Information & Privacy Law

Americans’ Virtual Safety in Sochi Winter Olympics

By Melinda Tsang, Executive Business Editor on Tuesday, February 18th, 2014
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Many countries have taken precautions to ensure the safety of their citizens while in Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics.  In the event of a terror attack, the United States is ready to whisk away American athletes, coaches, and spectators. Two U.S. war ships are on standby in the Black Sea, equipped with helicopters.  The United States has also stationed a transport aircraft in Germany, which can reach Sochi to evacuate Americans in two hours.  There is unprecedented physical security at the Olympics, but what about virtual safety?

There have been reports of smartphones, laptops, and other devices being hacked in Sochi, putting personal information at risk of being stolen.  Russia is known to electronically monitor anyone inside the country.  In fact, Russia’s privacy laws allow their government to obtain and keep electronic data from computers and phones for no reason at all.  In anticipation of this, the United States has built five private, secure wi-fi networks in Sochi.  However, they are not available to American citizens who are in Sochi as guests or spectators.

Whose responsibility is it to ensure the electronic safety of Americans in Sochi?  The U.S. state department has issued the following warning: “Travelers should be aware that Russian Federal law permits the monitoring, retention and analysis of all data that traverses Russian communication networks, including Internet browsing, email messages, telephone calls, and fax transmissions.”  This message suggests that American guests and spectators are “on their own” in Sochi when it comes to electronic  privacy.  While Russia can argue that unrestricted monitoring is necessary to keep informed of terror threats, it seems drastic for Americans to succumb to a complete lack of privacy.  Perhaps it is time that the countries participating in the Olympic Games devise and agree on an electronic privacy policy, which will be implemented consistently at each game.

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