Focusing public attention on emerging privacy and civil liberties issues

Privacy and the 2008 Olympic Summer Games

Latest News/Events

  • China to Spy on Olympic Visitors' Internet Activity. A Chinese intelligence agency has ordered foreign-owned hotels to install invasive snooping equipment that monitors Olympic visitors' Internet activity. Senator Sam Brownback announced that he has obtained an order from the Chinese Public Security Bureau that directs hotels to intercept and record the Internet activities of all guests, including "journalists, athletes' families, and other visitors." Senator Brownback observed that this directive contradicts China's pledge to the International Olympic Committee that the country would "maintain an environment free of government censorship during the Games." The spying plan also contravenes longstanding international privacy and human rights norms, including Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which prohibits "arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence." For more information, see EPIC's Privacy and Human Rights report. (July 30, 2008)
  • China Responds to U.S. Warning on Surveillance. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang's issued a statement in response to the recent U.S. Department of State travel advisory warning Americans traveling to China for the summer Olympics that they will have no expectation of privacy in public and private places. The statement from the Foreign Ministry called the State Department warning "irresponsible" and maintained that foreign visitors would have privacy protections in China, as guaranteed by the law. (March 24, 2008)
  • State Dept Warns Americans of Surveillance in China. The U.S. State Department issued a warning for Americans intending to travel to China for the summer Olympics to expect lowered standards of privacy and surveillance by the Chinese authorities. The travel advisory warns that hotel rooms and offices may be subject to technical monitoring and may be accessed without the consent or knowledge of the occupant. (March 20, 2008)

Background

Surveillance and Privacy in China

The Chinese Constitution provides for limited privacy rights. Article 37 defines the protection of freedom of the person and provides for protection from unlawful search and detention. Article 39 protects against unlawful search of a citizen's residence. Article 40 provides for the freedom and privacy of correspondence of the citizen.

In the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report 2007 - China, the People's Republic of China (PRC) is described as an authoritarian state. The report maintains that while the law protects the freedom and privacy of citizens, in practice privacy is not respected. According to the report:

"During the year [2007] authorities monitored telephone conversations, facsimile transmissions, e-mail, text messaging, and Internet communications. Authorities also opened and censored domestic and international mail. The security services routinely monitored and entered residences and offices to gain access to computers, telephones, and fax machines. All major hotels had a sizable internal security presence, and hotel guestrooms were sometimes bugged and searched for sensitive or proprietary materials.

Some citizens were under heavy surveillance and routinely had their telephone calls monitored or telephone service disrupted. The authorities frequently warned dissidents and activists, underground religious figures, former political prisoners, and others whom the government considered to be troublemakers not to meet with foreign journalists or diplomats, especially before sensitive anniversaries, at the time of important government or party meetings, and during the visits of high-level foreign officials. Security personnel also harassed and detained the family members of political prisoners, including following them to meetings with foreign reporters and diplomats and urging them to remain silent about the cases of their relatives."

China has increased its camera surveillance capacities as well. According to media reports, China is fortifying its camera surveillance network for the Olympics, forging business contracts with U.S. companies. China is trying to create "safe cities" by installing thousands of cameras in hundreds of cities, with 250,000-300,000 cameras for large cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

State Department Travel Advisories and Response From Chinese Government

The U.S. Department of State maintains general travel information pages for every country in the world. The travel information on China includes a warning related to surveillance and monitoring:

"Security personnel may at times place foreign visitors under surveillance. Hotel rooms, telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms, including computers, may be searched without the consent or knowledge of the traveler. Taking photographs of anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest may result in problems with authorities. Foreign government officials, journalists, and business people with access to advanced proprietary technology are particularly likely to be under surveillance."

In anticipation of the XXIXth Olympic Summer Games which will take place in China this year from August 8-24, 2008 and the Paralympic Summer Games will take place from September 6-17, 2008, the U.S. Department of State issued a fact sheet aimed specifically at Americans planning on attending the Olympic Summer Games. The fact sheet addressed privacy risks to foreign visitors as follows:

"All visitors should be aware that they have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public or private locations. All hotel rooms and offices are considered to be subject to on-site or remote technical monitoring at all times. Hotel rooms, residences and offices may be accessed at any time without the occupant's consent or knowledge. Many hotels and apartment buildings may be of substandard construction, lack emergency exits, fire suppression systems, carbon monoxide monitors and standard security equipment (locks, alarms, and personnel). Americans traveling abroad should be reminded to review fire evacuation procedures for hotels, apartments or offices."

Shortly after the fact sheet was issued and the media reported on the warning, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang's responded with the following statement:

"No special security measures will be arranged beyond universally adopted international practice at public venues, hotels and offices in China. Foreign visitors can be assured that privacy in China will be guaranteed according to the law. It is irresponsible for the US State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs to issue such a release."

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