Terror, Surveillance and the Winter Olympics


Another Olympics is around the corner, this time of the winter variety. The location is the Russian town of Sochi.  The object of this event, it would seem, is less medals than stifling security.  In other words, the time has come for another round of bashing and bullying, scented by a good deal of disingenuousness.

The problems are already been tallied for the coming games.  The overarching issue is safety, which, in the Olympic canon, usually means suspecting everybody and everything of targeting the spirit of a sacred sporting event.  Sport, notably of the Olympic character, is big business for the security state.  Suggesting that Sochi is an attractive target to begin with, the Russian authorities are wanting to make it even more inviting.  Hit us if you can, and we shall make everybody pay.

With last week’s suicide bombings in Volgograd, 400 miles northeast of Sochi, which killed 34 people and injured over a hundred, the security services are beginning to sing for their heavy supper.  “We will strongly and decisively continue the battle against terrorists until their total annihilation,” claimed President Vladimir Putin in his New Year’s Eve address.

The preparation for the Games has been extreme and extensive, employing a robotic and security army to target any threat against the athletes and visitors. It is one comprising a massive cyber surveillance system that shows why security officials love the Olympics.  Attempts to earn medals tend to be decrepit side shows of show ponies. The real business is taking place offstage.

A few points in this hysterical bonanza of protection are worth noting. More than 5,500 video cameras will be in operation as part of the “Safe Sochi” policy. Of those, 309 will be manned by the Russian intelligence services, the FSB.  The FSB has also had an outlay for their Plastun scout robots.  The devices are heavy with surveillance equipment: thermal imaging, cameras and devices that can detect a sniper’s scope (National Post, Jan 4).

Such a survey is only the start. More than 40,000 police will be on duty.  There will be drones, including the FSB’s Gorisont-Air S100, which is easily weaponised. Not to be outdone, the Interior Ministry has 421 Zala drones at its disposal.  With somewhat chilling language, Nikita Zakharov, the deputy director of Zala Aero, explained that, “The main thing is that you cannot see or hear a drone.”  There will be zones of population control – checking of people’s belongings, movements and credentials.  All visitors will need a Spectator Pass, which needs registering on the Sochi 2014 site.

There will be monitoring of spectators and athletes alike – the System of Operative-Investigative Measures system, or SORM, will (and at this, the US NSA must be sighing with envy) be able to track and monitor all electronic utterances. SORM is the bastard child of previous intelligence couplings – notably under the auspices of the Soviet-era KGB.  SORM-1 captures telephone and mobile phone telecommunications; SORM-2 intercepts Internet traffic; SORM-3 gathers information from all forms of communication and has a storage facility (World Policy Journal, Fall, 2013).

With a good deal of hypocrisy, US authorities have issued their own warnings about the potential for privacy violations, suggesting that what the Russians do is not something they would encourage.  The briefing in the “Travel Cyber Security Best Practices” reads, as Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan claim in the World Policy Journal (Fall, 2013), like “briefing instructions for a Cold War-era spy.”  Among the bits of advice is travelling with “clean” electronic devices.  “Otherwise, essential devices should have all personal identifying information and sensitive files removed or ‘sanitised.’”

The directions get even more dramatic.  “Do not connect to local ISPs at cafes, coffee shops, hotels, airports, or other local venues.”  Passwords should be changed before and after the trip.  “Assume any electronic device you take can be exploited.”  The list of recommendations, it is interesting to note, might just as well be used by US citizens regarding the surveillance of their own communications by the security services.  But the Russians already know that.

The Russian state has gone further than its counterparts in granting seven investigative and security agencies the right to intercept and examine phone calls and emails.  It is true that FSB officers are required by law to obtain a court order to eavesdrop, but the grant is not one that will be questioned.  It is incumbent on those officers to show what they find to their superiors.

The Russian surveillance and security state has bloomed under the watchful Putin.  The mendacious International Olympic Committee is satisfied with the potential of what it might be able to do, and has accepted the astonishing line from Moscow that the authorities will “guarantee freedom of speech despite the high security during the Games.”  Seeing as the IOC and freedom of speech tend to be extra-terrestrial to each other, the statement is without merit.  Various Olympic authorities have issued guidelines banning athletes from using social media.

The enormous, near paramilitary response to the Sochi Games merely affirms the fact that nothing in terms of public entertainment or recreation can be entirely excluded from the security gaze.  The narrative of sport here is the narrative of violence, existing or contingent.  What will be interesting to note is whether this heavy-handed state formula succeeds in repelling the very threats it claims is protecting both spectator and athlete alike.  The power of incompetence may be more telling than the depravity of malice.  The Russian forces may have nothing to protect themselves from that.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com




Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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