Is it becoming impossible to hold a politics-proof Olympics?
First Voice

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Is China spying on Olympic athletes through the My2022 Winter Olympic app? You would believe the answer is yes if you read major English-language media outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Guardian. Stories in these newspapers all say the tracking app has security flaws that could be used for snooping and strongly imply, but do not state clearly, that China is doing something shady. These stories come amid a larger flurry of negative media coverage about all aspects of Chinese society ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. This in turn is part of a U.S.-led effort to discredit the government of China and slow its rise.

The app stories are all based on a paper from the think tank Citizen Lab, which the New York Times describes as a "University of Toronto cybersecurity watchdog." The Citizen Lab considers itself a human rights organization working through the lens of communications technology. Its goals include lobbying for a free and unregulated internet. Some of its funding comes from U.S. foundations with ties to the U.S. government. The paper from Citizen Lab that sparked these stories is titled "Cross-Country Exposure" and starts with a series of alarming bullet points that make it sound like the app will be used for spying on athletes.

However, there are several interesting points that contradict the sensational headline and opening paragraphs if the full paper is read. First of all, the paper acknowledges that athletes are clearly told the information from this app may be collected and processed by Chinese authorities, the IOC and "others involved in the implementation of the [COVID-19] countermeasures."

The display of My2022 app. /Screenshot via Apple App Store

The display of My2022 app. /Screenshot via Apple App Store

Second, the paper acknowledges that the Chinese government has no need to illicitly snoop on the data collected by the app, since that information is being submitted directly to the government anyways. The paper notes "there would be little instrumental rationality in the government intercepting their own data, as weaknesses in the encryption of the transmission of this information would only aid other parties."

Third, the paper admits that the security flaws it found in the app are likely not deliberate, but instead quite common. China is still in the process of trying to beef-up its security in the cyberspace and the apps are part of that effort. The paper itself said that the flaws are "less likely to be the result of a vast government conspiracy but rather the result of a simpler explanation such as differing priorities for software developers in China." The paper notes that similar flaws have been found in the Chinese-developed Zoom.

Citizen Lab has issued separate reports on flawed COVID-19 tracking apps in other countries, but only this report on China ended up in the news in a major way. That's because the Western media has a bottomless appetite for negative stories about China.

Reading between the lines, it is not hard to see that the Citizen Lab report is mostly criticizing not a security flaw in an app, but the way China is governed on the whole. The structure of the report begins with a sensational headline and facts cherry-picked from the report in a misleading way that directly contradict the information deep down in the main text.

Disinfecting the National Stadium in Beijing, April 12, 2021. /CFP

Disinfecting the National Stadium in Beijing, April 12, 2021. /CFP

The introduction of the report does not talk about the app, but repeats a series of complaints about China by the U.S. government and human rights organizations. In essence, the think tank uses a report about a run-of-the-mill and inconsequential security flaw in an app to criticize the ideology behind China's system of government.

The report's author does not believe information on the internet should be regulated at all, and that China's efforts to do so should be condemned. He does not believe the law is enforced in a fair way in China. He does not believe minority groups such as Uygurs or Tibetans are treated justly. He believes that privacy concerns are more important than the health benefits of COVID-19 tracking apps in general. These political sentiments shine through in every section of the report, even as the report slowly reveals that the flaw is common, not deliberate, and that China has no reason to snoop on the apps data because it is being sent the information directly.

Citizen Lab has in the past written reports on the danger of foreign internet attacks and propaganda to Western nations. However, it implicitly sees any efforts by a nation like China to protect itself from similar attacks as illegitimate. Past reports by Citizen Lab have focused on China's internet regulation system and how to circumvent it.

At a fundamental ideological level, Citizen Lab considers any efforts by China to control false rumors about COVID-19, stop people from disseminating information meant to arouse hate between ethnic groups or undermine the authority of the government as illegitimate and undermining "human rights." China's regulation of such information is deemed "censorship."

China has nothing to apologize for, either for the My2022 app or its political system. The app has been approved by the International Olympic Committee, Google and Apple. If China is really intruding on human rights, as the Citizen Lab's report insinuates, is the Citizen Lab going to accuse the IOC, Google and Apple of being complicit or partners in that crime?

Supporters of Donald Trump climb on walls at the U.S. Capitol during a protest against the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by Congress, in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2021. /Reuters

Supporters of Donald Trump climb on walls at the U.S. Capitol during a protest against the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by Congress, in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2021. /Reuters

More importantly, China does not need to justify its successful system of government to the Citizen Lab or the West. Fears that foreign actors influenced the 2016 presidential election distracted the U.S. government for years, divided its people and led to the impeachment of the president. The deadly January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was a direct result of disinformation spread over unregulated social media sites.

Poorly regulated disinformation has also led to low COVID-19 vaccination rates in the United States, and extreme partisanship that has paralyzed government, generated mistrust in elections, and threatens to unravel American democracy altogether. By scanning the front pages of U.S. newspapers, you will know that the U.S. public and lawmakers understand weaponized lies on social media are tearing their country apart.

This is not happening in China, something China is rightly proud of. But China is not emulated or praised, but instead accused of "censorship." Countries like France and the United Kingdom have allowed terrorist threats to fester with their borders, leading to a continuous threat of terror strikes. China chose a different path, addressed the threat of a separatist terror campaign at the roots, and eliminated the problem.

The U.S. media has thrown every smear in the book at China as the Winter Olympics Games approach. They have parroted charges by U.S. politicians without factchecking them, in a way reminiscent of the weapons of mass destruction propaganda in the run-up to the Iraq war. China has been criticized for its efforts to control COVID-19, its decade-long effort in reducing air pollution, its preparations for the Games and its efforts to keep politics out of the Olympic venues. This comes against a background of the most horrible smears against China imaginable, including genocide, starting a pandemic from a lab leak and disseminating nuclear missile technology – all made without a scrap of evidence and with the intent to damage China.

The Olympics was conceived as an event in which the nations of the world could put aside their inevitable differences for a few weeks with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play, building a peaceful and better world.

But it seems that it might as well be just a pipe-dream.

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