Will the 2012 Olympics set new surveillance records?

Never in the history of the Olympics has there been a more publicized series of security blunders before the actual event. People on terrorism watch lists are waved through airport security, contractors unable to hire qualified security personnel, busloads of Olympians temporarily lost in London and a general public malaise about the whole thing are now permeating the global media.

The waves of embarrassment are hitting the highest levels of government where a sense of accountability is met with

Claudiu Popa, president, Informatica Corp.

incredulity over the fact that no one apparently knew of the massive gaps ahead of time. This, in spite of a 2011 U.K. Police report to the government indicating such concerns. So a bit of a witch hunt has been unfolding in Britain over the past couple of weeks to determine who is to blame and how armed forces will be picking up the slack, who will pay their bonuses and naturally, how the ensuing debacle will unfold. As it stands, the House of Commons wants to know where the accountability gaps exist within the government, G4S management, the U.S. TSA or even the Olympic Commission itself.

‘This has not, nor will it, impact on the safety and security of these Games. That of course is our No. 1 priority.’—Sebastian Coe, London Games chief.

Meanwhile and probably as a result, the UK’s Security Services (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) are likely implementing further technical measures to compensate for the physical security shortfalls. Some such surveillance techniques will doubtlessly fire up privacy advocates worldwide and may even establish a precedent for world-class events. Already having had a chance to review the proposed plans, privacy advocates are primarily concerned over the plan to record all electronic communication. Period.

This would mean that Security Services have real time access to the information and the extent of the surveillance will likely remain confidential. It goes without saying that such data collection will apply personal email, social networking sites (Facebook activity, tweets, online gaming, etc). The new ‘intelligence gathering system’ is suspected of being deployed on this occasion, but privacy advocates fear that it might be intended for long-term use, a precedent set by previous Olympic events.

How will data be stored and for how long? The implications of improper handling of personal information collected on this scale without explicit permission are wide-ranging. Will visitor consent be demanded at the last moment? Probably not. Will surveillance zones be clearly demarcated? Don’t bet on it. The proposed plan seems to be a significant infringement on the privacy of people, and it will not go unnoticed.

But even if London uses surveillance drones, warships and audio recording of unsuspecting visitors, those acts alone are not likely create a precedent. For the 2004 Olympics in Greece authorities installed thousands of cameras that are still in use today. In fact, the country’s data protection law was retroactively amended to exempt surveillance cameras from its privacy provisions. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics the world was barely aware of the 200,000 cameras used to record every movement, including within the confines of private establishments such as hotels. So the Olympics are well acquainted with the in-your-face approach to public surveillance. The question is to what degree will current global events and privacy salience dictate the extent to which such human rights infringements are seen as the status quo for future world-class events.

According to AFP, Brazilian security agencies are closely watching the outcome of the situation even as they plan on using surveillance drones to supplement security at the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. If indeed that is to be the way of the future, then a balance between open governance and global privacy will continue to be a combustible mix, and unfortunately one that may squelch efforts towards transparency and accountability. We know from past experience that security by obscurity doesn’t work, so as the eyes of the world are regaled by record breaking feats of human performance, those of thousands of others will be carefully waiting for a denouement that may have an equally permanent impact on the exercise and protection of human rights.

Claudiu Popa
Claudiu Popa
Claudiu Popa is a security and privacy advisor to Canadian enterprises, associations and agencies. He is an author, speaker and lecturer. Connect with him on Twitter @datarisk, Facebook, G+ or LinkedIn.

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