Olympic Athletes Advised to Take Burner Phone to China As Smartphone App Has Security Flaws

An internet watchdog warned athletes participating in next month's Winter Olympics in Beijing about an app expected to be widely used as part of the Beijing Olympics, saying it has security flaws.

According to Citizen Lab's report, all event attendees, including audience members, press and athletes, will be required to download the MY2022 app. The app has a variety of uses, including voice chats, file transfers and weather updates. Guidance from the International Olympic Committee tells attendees to download the app before arriving in China, The Associated Press reported.

But the IOC said Tuesday night the app is not mandatory. It also said independent testing found no security issues with the app.

People visiting from outside of China will also be able to upload health customs information through the app. The Associated Press reported this is part of China's effort to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the Tuesday report said the app has a "simple but devastating flaw" that allows the encryption of audio and other files sent through it to be "trivially sidestepped." It said all the health customs information people can send through the app—including passport information, medical history and more—is vulnerable to hacks.

USA Today reported Olympic committees in several countries including the United States, Canada and the Netherlands have warned athletes against bringing their cell phones to Beijing when the games begin on February 4.

Team USA sent out a technology bulletin encouraging using burner phones as well as rental or disposable computers.

"Like computers, the data and applications on cell phones are subject to malicious intrusion, infection and data compromise," the bulletin said.

The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee told the athletes to "assume that every device and every communication, transaction, and online activity will be monitored," adding there should be "no expectation of data security or privacy while operating in China," according to the AP.

The Citizen Lab report said that while the MY2022 app is "fairly straightforward" on the data it collects in public-facing documents, it could not ascertain where medical information obtained from the app was being shared.

Woman on laptop
Olympic athletes from several countries – including the United States – are being encouraged to leave their personal cell phones and laptops at home next month due to cyber surveillance concerns at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. Above, a woman sits typing on her laptop. marchmeena29/iStock / Getty Images Plus

It also added that the app has a feature allowing users to report "politically sensitive" content and, while it was not currently active, the app has a list of keywords to censor.

One of these keywords is reportedly "Xinjiang," where China has been accused of crimes against the Uyghur Muslim minority group such as genocide and forced sterilization.

China has a long history of surveilling its citizens. In January 2021, German journalist Kai Strittmatter, who has studied China for more than three decades, told NPR Chinese citizens have been "feeling the presence of the state for all their lives."

As an example, Strittmatter said he had two friends who were arrested after discussing on popular Chinese app WeChat plans to go to a Beijing reading of poems in support of Hong Kong.

"And they never made it to the poetry reading," he said. "They were arrested on the way. And it was clearly because of their WeChat conversations."

According to a U.S. Department of State travel advisory, Chinese security authorities can monitor everything from hotel rooms to internet usage, and personal possessions like computers are at risk of being searched without the person's consent.

"Security personnel carefully watch foreign visitors and may place you under surveillance," it said. "Security personnel have been known to detain and deport U.S. citizens sending private electronic messages critical of the Chinese government."

Update (01/18, 9:29 PM): This headline and story has been updated to reflect new information from the IOC.

Beijing Olympics, MY2022 app
Several countries' Olympic athletes have been advised to bring burner phones to China out of cybersecurity concerns. Above, a woman looks at her phone as she passes an Olympic logo inside the main media center for the Beijing Winter Olympics on January 18, 2022, in Beijing. David J. Phillip/AP Photo