Privacy advocates have observed for years that countries hosting the Olympic Games introduce increasingly heightened security and surveillance measures for the event, but rarely cut back on public surveillance after the games are finished. Because these expanded surveillance measures are often made permanent, we noted with interest a report released by the whistle-blower website Wikileaks that detailed how the United States lobbied Brazil about security and information-sharing strategies after the latter was chosen to host the 2016 Olympic Games.

Despite lengthy diplomatic cables on this issue, the cables from the U.S. that have been made public did not address the very serious privacy, civil liberties and public accountability implications of the widespread use of surveillance technologies. It remains to be seen what types of security and privacy protocols Brazil will be implement in the coming years. But history shows that the Olympic Games often result in increased security and public surveillance measures that persist long after the games end – to the detriment of privacy.

According to the cables released by Wikileaks, the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia reported on opportunities for the United States Government (USG) to take advantage of the Games to broaden their influence on the government of Brazil and to strengthen cooperation in broader security issues.

“Given the high degree of interest in the Olympics among Brazilians and the high value Brazil places on conducting a successful Game, there are already opportunities for the USG to pursue cooperation toward the Games, and to use such cooperation to further broader USG objectives in Brazil, including increased cooperation and Brazilian expertise on counterterrorism activities. As we look ahead, taking advantage of the Games to work security issues should be a priority, as should cooperation on cybercrime and broader information security (see ref B for additional areas for potential cooperation). We should also look to build in offers for dialogue on preparations for major sporting events as part of all high-level contacts with the Brazilians."

A few weeks before this December 24, 2009 cable, the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia had sent another cable on December 1, 2009 titled, “The Future is Now.” In this cable, the U.S. Embassy encouraged U.S. agencies to use concerns about a power blackout, and infrastructure challenges in the run up to the 2016 Olympics, to make a case for expanded involvement of the United States government with Brazil in critical infrastructure and cybersecurity.

“The newly heightened concerns about Brazil's infrastructure as a result of this blackout, combined with the need to address infrastructure challenges in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, present the United States opportunities for engagement on infrastructure development as well critical infrastructure protection and possibly cyber security,” reads a December 1, 2009 cable from the U.S Embassy in Brasilia.

In addition cable dated December 24, 2009 shows that the Embassy in Brasilia further anticipates that “the next [Brazilian] Administration may organize preparations differently,” “...or even establish a new agency specifically to coordinate Olympics infrastructure and security planning and logistics.”

The privacy situation in Brazil isn't promising. Brazil does not currently have a privacy law but it is debating one. The draft bill would protect the collection, use and disclosure of personal information of Brazilians. However, privacy advocates in Brazil have criticized the draft bill since it will exempt databases created for the sole purposes of public security, national security, and law enforcement activities. These would be subject to separate legislation.

We are disturbed to see the U.S. lobbying to push the Brazilian government to increase security measures in advance of the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. Privacy advocates who have analyzed previous Olympics security plans, noted that Olympic organizers have contributed to a “climate of fear and surveillance” to the “detriment of democracy, transparency, and international and national human rights law.”

For example, as reported in a recent study, Greek law enforcement and intelligence agencies used over 1,000 surveillance cameras in the 2004 Athens games - which continued to be used by the police even after the games. The cameras were employed not only to monitor high traffic roads, which were their stated purpose, but also to surveil public spaces, including demonstrations in those places. After a heated battle with law enforcement officials, the head of the Greek Data Protection Authority and his deputies resigned. The Authority stated that police use of surveillance cameras for secondary purposes “directly breached" the Authority's privacy regulations.” Moreover, the Greek data protection law was amended to exempt surveillance cameras from its privacy provisions.

Similarly, in advance of the 2008 Olympic Games, Chinese authorities installed over 200,000 cameras and other surveillance measures in Beijing. They also ordered foreign-owned hotels to install Internet monitoring equipment to spy on hotel guests during the Games.

Taking security precautions prior to the Olympics should not result in implementing public surveillance without any regard to privacy. Prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, privacy advocates urged the Canadian government to adopt several measures to protect privacy and security; notably:

  • “to moderate the escalation of security measures for Vancouver 2010 and to strive to respect the true spirit of the event;
  • to be as open as possible about the necessary security and surveillance practices;
  • to conduct a full, independent public assessment of the security and surveillance measures, once the Games are over, addressing their costs (financial and otherwise), their effectiveness, and lessons to be learned for future mega-events;
  • not to assume a permanent legacy of increased video surveillance and hardened security measures in the Vancouver/Whistler area, and to have full and open public discussion on any such proposed legacy.”

In the run-up to the Games, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, in conjunction with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia, issued a series of recommendations seeking to ensure that surveillance and other security measures would not unduly infringe individual’s rights.

“[The] Olympic Games pose unique and difficult challenges from a public security perspective," said Jennifer Stoddart, Privacy Commissioner of Canada. "And yet, the duty of governments to provide for the security of citizens must, in democratic societies, be tempered by the values that underpin our way of life. That is why the right to privacy must be upheld, even during mega-events like the Olympic games, where the threat to security is higher than usual.”

Tamir Israel, of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, also expressed concern that the recent increase in public security measures could result in lasting changes to the Canadian security landscape: “It is already clear that the event allowed for new surveillance technologies to gain a foothold in Vancouver that would never otherwise have been accepted.”

The public should carefully monitor security and privacy steps that new Brazilian government might be considering as the 2014 World Cup soccer and 2016 Olympics approach. There must be an informed and open debate about privacy and security. The public must also be told whether enhanced security measures will be reversed after the games. The Olympics are an opportunity for cultural exchange, not an excuse for trampling civil liberties.