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Are Olympics a Trojan horse for Big Brother?

A security camera stands on a lamp post in front of London's iconic Clock Tower, which houses Big Ben, on July 23.
A security camera stands on a lamp post in front of London's iconic Clock Tower, which houses Big Ben, on July 23.Ettore Ferrari / EPA file

When the Olympic flame is doused on Sunday, we know the cheers will quiet, the athletes will move on and fans will go home. But will Big Brother stay behind?

Every Olympics host city goes through it: the Olympic hangover. When the athletes step off the medal podiums, the city must clean up, pay the bills and figure out how to monetize a series of shiny new venues. The most important decision, however, might seem much more subtle: What happens to all those new security cameras and other surveillance technologies that were installed for the Games? Privacy experts fret that, as with Athens, Beijing and Vancouver, the Olympics means a steep ratcheting up of security that never really gets ratcheted down.

"It would be a tragedy if the most visible legacy of the Games in London was a huge increase in the amount of surveillance people are subjected to in their everyday lives," said Nick Pickles, director of London-based Big Brother Watch.

Host cities tolerate massive shows of security that would otherwise be unimaginable. In London, which already has more CCTV security cameras than any other city in the world, 2,000 new cameras were installed in the Olympic Village, while nearly 2,000 more were installed around the city, according to Big Brother Watch. License plate recognition systems have been installed throughout London. There are even surface-to-air missiles atop apartment buildings and more military troops on the ground than Britain has in Afghanistan. An $877 million effort, it's been called the largest peacetime deployment of security forces in history, but the question remains: Will there be mission creep? How much of that infrastructure and the public’s newfound tolerance for being watched will remain after the Games are finished?

Earlier this year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation published an analysis of all recent Games and says the results are disheartening.  It should come as no surprise that the Beijing Summer Games were used as an excuse to install thousands of cameras that are still in operation, said the report’s author, Rebecca Bowe. But other cities have suffered similar fates, too.

"The Games bring a legacy that lives well beyond the prestige," Bowe said. "We've witnessed time and again, the security infrastructure lives on well beyond the Games."

Concrete concerns

The concerns aren't merely theoretical. Athens officials installed about 1,000 cameras for the 2004 Summer Games. In 2007, Greece amended its national data protection law to exempt the cameras; Greek privacy commissioner Dimitris Gourgourakis resigned over the incident. The cameras have since been used during protests following economic unrest there.

More Olympics coverage in London 2012: Hosting the Games

The Olympics has a long-running legacy as a massive security event, which long pre-dates post-9/11 terrorism concerns. It dates at least as far back as the Munich Summer Games of 1972, when a security breach contributed to the kidnapping of Israeli athletes from the Olympic Village; 11 were eventually murdered.  But even before that event, the Olympics were never free of international politics and the real possibility that some group might use them to violently make a point.

No one disputes the need for heightened security during the Games, but is the installation of security infrastructure, and the culture that comes with it, a one-way street? Can a security state be dismantled? Or are the Games a Trojan horse that allows those with a heavy-handed security agenda to gain the upper hand?

Olympic security plan transforms London into fortress

"The equipment has been bought and paid for. The real risk is they simply leave it in place and turn it over to local authorities, and by the back door, we have a huge increase in surveillance," Pickles said. "Government officials have made assurances that some of it is temporary, but they haven't said what."

Already, whiz-bang security technology in London has proven tempting to local authorities. Pickles pointed to minutes from a recent borough council meeting in Newham, just east of London, where officials openly expressed desire to buy Olympics surveillance technology after the Games end.

Alfredo Lopez, founder of the international privacy advocacy organization MayFirst/PeopleLink, said it's very difficult to reverse the Olympics security buildup.

"There is no way these guys are going to take down those cameras, especially with all the social unrest there," said Lopez, who is based in New York.

Lopez, a professed lover of Olympic sports, said the security issue threatens to squander any of the goodwill gained by the otherwise-peaceful international gathering.

Red Tape Chronicles on

"I happen to believe, and I know this is corny, (that) the Olympics is one of the greatest things the human race does, so why do these bastards pervert it with their repressive attitudes?" he said. "How can you run a principal event of goodwill and friendship, then at same time, on top of buildings you have missiles? It's totally incongruous. It's very, very disturbing and contradictory to the Olympic spirit. It ruins the whole thing."

'It softens people up'

One fundamental problem of the Games is that they are used as an "obvious show of military capability," Lopez said, with host nations using the occasion the beat their chests about their powerful ability to respond to threats. But Pickles is worried about a much more subtle issue: Residents get used to the trade-off between privacy and heightened security practices, and their tolerance level is slowly raised, leading to fewer objections to police tactics.

"The danger is it softens people up to the next step," he said.

The next step is Brazil in 2016, where circumstances on the ground dictate what will almost inevitably be an even stronger implementation of security force and technology. (Privacy advocates are too pessimistic about the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, to use those games as a battleground.) An active battle between paramilitary police forces and organized crime means residents are used to compromised civil liberties, and even before the 2016 Games, Rio de Janeiro will host the World Cup in 2014. Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks suggest that U.S. government officials have encouraged use of additional surveillance tools by the Brazilian government, as well as a partnership with U.S. security agencies.

As a result, market research firm 6Wresearch predicts the market for security cameras will nearly quadruple, to $362 million, by 2016.

By then, Pickles warns, people have another element to worry about: increased sophistication of technologies like facial recognition. Londoners, for example, would almost certainly not tolerate a permanent military presence in the city. But as police gadgets get smaller and smarter, they also become less visible.

"It's getting more discreet, even as the processing power is getting more powerful," he said. "It's becoming much more clandestine, ... which means people won't object to it as much."

Looking to Vancouver

Brazil and London might be able to learn something from Vancouver's experience after the 2010 Winter Games. Western Canada has an active civil participation culture, and even before the Games began, Canada's privacy commissioner warned about mission creep in Olympics security plans.

"The right to privacy must be upheld, even during mega-events like the Olympic Games, where the threat to security is higher than usual," Commissioner Jennifer Stoddard said in a speech delivered before the Games calling for dismantling of surveillance technology after the Games. "Will the residents of Vancouver and the lower mainland wind up living surrounded by an array of surveillance systems that they neither want nor need?"

Partly as a result, most of the 900 video cameras installed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were removed after the Games. About 75 were left behind for use by the Vancouver police, said Adam Molnar, who is studying the Olympics security effect as part of his Ph.D. work at the University of Victoria.

"British Columbia civil liberties associations put pressure on the Vancouver Police Department, which was in negotiations to keep the cameras up," he said. Even some of the remaining cameras were turned off, only to be used in crisis situations, he said.

On the other hand, analysis of Vancouver's post-Olympics security hangover is muddied by the fact that in the spring of 2011, there were major riots after the Vancouver Canucks lost hockey’s Stanley Cup final. City officials have successfully turned to Twitter and other social media tools that deputized people to help identify criminals during the riots. Given the embarrassment over the riots, many residents were eager to help.

"That turns out to be an alternate route to (security) cameras everywhere," Molnar said.

The most lasting legacy of the Vancouver Games, Molnar said, was not police gadgetry, but rather reorganization of the police force into small, nimble anti-riot teams that share some characteristics with paramilitary teams.

"The extent that militarist ideal supplants community-based policing, that should concern people," he said. "And any time you have a deepening of integration between civilian and military police, like you have now in London, that's disturbing."

Molnar felt confident that Vancouver's security experience offered some hope to privacy advocates in London and Rio, however.

"You can look to Vancouver as a positive example of an active civil liberty and political community that tried to engage the government around privacy and surveillance issues, and that did earn some small victories," he said. "In many ways it's forced policing agencies to respond to public debate. ... There's certainly a need for informed civilian oversight."


But Bowe, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said she's worried that the Olympics will continue to be abused as one of a list of "mega-events" that give officials permission to tighten the security screws until tremendous power is concentrated in small government forces.

"The march toward a militarized, urban future will continue apace unless people push back," she said. 

And Lopez sees little room for hope at the moment.

"My general worry as a human being is about the setting up of apparatus of police states in all of these places," he said.

Even those who have faith in the good intentions of their current government are being short-sighted, he warned.

"The (U.S.) and some of these places are not a police state now. But the problem is if the apparatus is set up, it could be easily be Nazified and turned on people. ... If there's a history to the world, it's that certain small, elite groups of people usurp and pervert the great works of the majority of humanity, like the Olympic Games, for nefarious and selfish purposes."

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