NBC Nightly News broadcast a very alarming report last week ahead of the Olympic Games in Sochi, showing just how quickly reporter Richard Engel’s phone and laptop were attacked by malware upon his landing in Russia. A digital security expert then poked holes in the report—but NBC stands by it.
But, as Russell Brandom at The Verge pointed out over the weekend, taking precautions against hackers overseas is just a matter of common-sense Web hygiene; surveillance by the Russian government, on the other hand, is a far bigger concern. The US State Department has warned that Russian law “permits the monitoring, retention, and analysis of all data that traverses Russian communication networks,” and that travelers should not communicate with any expectation of privacy. A Guardian report revealed a government surveillance program in place for the Sochi Games that was likened to “PRISM on steroids.”
Sports reporters traveling to Sochi last week went overseas with varying levels of preparedness and paranoia. Some reporters are using burner phones and Russian SIM cards, and traveled with brand new laptops containing no data. Others aren’t taking any precautions at all besides crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.
As would be expected, the types of precautions seem to depend on the size and resources of their news organizations, and the types of reporting they’re doing. For instance, everyone I spoke to seems to know they should be aware of the risk of hackers looking for bank account information, but not everyone thinks he or she would be a target for government surveillance. Most of the press is just covering sports events, after all.
“I don’t really care if the Russian government is reading everything I write,” wrote Grantland’s Katie Baker in an email. “I care slightly more about whether Eastern European hackers are draining my bank account.” Baker did say, though, that she was avoiding public Wi-Fi, and considering wiping her devices clean before heading back home.
Michael C. Lewis from the Salt Lake Tribune described some simple, common-sense precautions he took before he traveled, including removing all sensitive and personal information from his laptop, remembering not to auto-save his passwords, and saving all of his personal information on an external zip drive that he keeps separate from his computer. He developed most of those methods after his laptop was stolen out of the press room at the Olympics in Turin in 2006 rather than in response to a concern about being hacked.
“All of that probably sounds pretty naïve…but broadly speaking, I just don’t worry that I have too much information on my computer that’s worth having,” Lewis wrote. “You watch now, though; I’ll turn around and be the next guy whose credit card information bought a Lamborghini and a trunk full of beluga caviar.”
The larger organizations are likely taking more precautions, but were also less likely to want to talk about what those precautions were. The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN all responded to questions with official “no comment” lines or else told their employees not to talk. Many others did not respond at all to requests for interviews.
To circumvent public Wi-Fi networks while covering the games, Yahoo Sports reporters are using VPNs and encrypted Web dongles that allow for private, secure communication. “I think it helps that I work for a technology company that considers these things, and that appreciates security, and understands how easy it can be for really computer savvy people, and there are a lot of them here, to just go and take whatever they want from you,” said Yahoo reporter Jeff Passan.
Private Wi-Fi definitely seems like a good idea, but what if it gets you in trouble with your hosts? Charles Robinson, also of Yahoo Sports, tweeted out a photo on Friday of a Russian organizer walking around the press room checking computers for private Wi-Fi hotspots. “There is a big conversation taking place now in Russian where he appears to be identifying people he wants thrown out,” Robinson wrote in another tweet. He took a picture of a sign on the wall that read: “The use of private wireless access points (Wi-Fi) is strictly forbidden unless approved by the Spectrum Management Team.”