Sochi: Just a day into the Winter Olympics, a worrying photo started circulating around the journalists in Sochi.
Yahoo! senior investigative reporter Charles Robinson took a snap of a man in a press workroom at Sochi, wearing official accreditation, holding a reporter’s laptop and a strange triangular device.
“Happening right now: This guy is going computer to computer in the press room scanning the laptops of everyone here,” Robinson tweeted.
Happening right now: This guy is going computer to computer in the press room scanning the laptops of everyone here. pic.twitter.com/ii9cSpWeuK— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) February 8, 2014
Paranoia about Russian government surveillance immediately went into overdrive.
“Can he read your hard drive?” asked one Twitterer.
The reality was more prosaic: he was from a “spectrum management team”, making sure media weren’t setting up their own Wi-Fi networks, which would interfere with the official ones used by the rest of the media and Olympics organisers.
Nevertheless it struck a sore nerve. Many of the media are worried about how secure they are.
There is real reason for concern: the Snowden revelations show how good governments are at eavesdropping on digital communications.
According to a report in The Guardian, athletes and spectators in Sochi would be monitored by Russia’s FSB security service using a wide net of telephone and internet intercepts dubbed “PRISM on steroids” (the Russians said it was to counter the very real threat of a terrorist attack on the Games).
And Russia is a well-known haunt for criminal hackers – by one estimate Russia is the source for around a third of all the world’s viruses, Trojans and malware, and a hotbed of identity theft and credit card fraud.
Last week, NBC TV news in the US mounted what they called a demonstration of the risks – they opened up a Mac, a PC and an Android smartphone in a coffee shop in Moscow, and “Malicious software hijacked our phone before we even finished our coffee, stealing my information and giving hackers the option to tap or record my phone calls,” reporter Richard Engel said.
I don’t really care if the Russian government is reading everything I write
His two laptops were also compromised, with a stream of information going from one of them to an unknown destination within Russia.
The report was pooh-poohed by experts, who labelled it a beat-up.
Blogger Robert Graham called it “100 per cent fraudulent”, pointing out that in order to get hacked the reporter had omitted basic precautions, such as not downloading software from mysterious links in unfamiliar websites or emails.
“Richard Engel hacked himself by knowingly downloading a hostile Android app,” he said. The hacks that were demonstrated could equally easily happen anywhere else in the world.
NBC defended the story, saying the reporter had been specifically targeted by a Russian hacker and sent an email designed to trick him into downloading hostile software.
Nevertheless, many of the media here are taking precautions to guard their data.
The Columbia Journalism Review reported that some had gone as far as using ‘burner phones’ and new laptops containing no personal data.
Others took care to sweep their computer of all personal information including auto-saved passwords, before entering Russia.
Yahoo! Sports reporters are communicating via private, secure networks using encrypted Web dongles.
Those taking more care belong to the bigger, better-resourced organisations, the CJR reported. Others don’t care as much.
“I don’t really care if the Russian government is reading everything I write,” Grantland’s Katie Baker told CJR in an email. “I care slightly more about whether Eastern European hackers are draining my bank account.”
She is avoiding using public Wi-Fi for that reason.
Most journalists seem more concerned about cybercrime than government surveillance.
But then there’s that odd comment from Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister responsible for the Olympic preparations.
In trying to deflect criticism of hotel problems, he said: “We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall and then leave the room for the whole day.”
A spokesman later clarified there was “absolutely no” surveillance in hotel rooms or bathrooms occupied by guests, and the minister was referring to surveillance of premises during construction and cleaning before the Olympics.
So that’s alright then.