The scale and grandeur of the Winter Olympics in Sochi is estimated to have cost Russia an astronomical $46 billion. Two of its key telecom partners, Rostelecom and Megafon, pledged less than one percent: about $415 million total. But was that enough to turn a mountainous subtropical resort into a world-class connected site, with full LTE coverage for the first time in the Olympics’ history? And perhaps more importantly, what behind-the-scenes technology keeps the Olympics running securely?
You’ve probably heard multiple accounts of everyday life horrors in Sochi, such as missing bulbs in hotel rooms, weird bathrooms, and dangerous manholes. But complaints about the cell coverage, Wi-Fi quality (even if it was provided that way), and overall connectivity have been nearly indiscernible in the Olympic buzz.
Digital surveillance fears, however, lingered across the board.
Sochi surveillance and security
The Russian government took extreme security measures in Sochi, so it would have been reckless to expect anything but the maximum security on the digital side, too. The Federal Security Service (or FSB), the Russian successor to the KGB, is certainly keeping a close eye on Sochi visitors in cyberspace.
Since they helped foot the bill, the two companies above are the only ones providing wireless and wired communications at the Olympic venues: the state-controlled telecom operator Rostelecom and cell carrier Megafon, which is owned by a Kremlin-loyal oligarch Alisher Usmanov. No matter the ownership structure, every telecom company in Russia is required by law to install communications interception equipment, thus giving security services access to a carrier users’ activity. That access may only be taken advantage of when authorized by court, of course.
A nationwide system of lawful interception of electronic communications, so-called SORM (System for Operative and Investigative Activities), surfaced in the mid-1990s and passed several revisions since then. The most recent edition, SORM-3, stores private user Internet usage data (IP addresses, accounts accessed, and more) for at least 12 hours. Telecom companies will have to buy and install the SORM-3-ready equipment by July 1, 2014 to comply with the draft bill from the Russian Ministry of Communications.
The proposed SORM-3 sparked heated public debate when the information first appeared in major media in October 2013. VimpelCom, one of the three largest cell carriers in Russia, said the new SORM requirements violate the Constitution. Anton Nossik, a renowned Russian startup-manager and blogger, called the security initiative no less than “a high treason.” However, he also said that the measures won’t make any difference to users: “You will remain under surveillance as you were before,” he wrote on his site. “The surveillance will also remain as inefficient as it was before.”
Russian journalists have uncovered the extended interception capabilities of SORM at the Sochi Olympics. Ronald Deibert, the director of Toronto-based Citizen Lab and a contributor to the investigation, called SORM “PRISM on steroids” in an interview to The Guardian. And some data security services won’t even have to resort to SORM: in his decree, prime-minister Dmitry Medvedev authorized the gathering of metadata about the Sochi visitors’ use of data services. And it works like this: Wi-Fi at all the venues is free, but you have to log in with personal credentials.
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“It is important that attendees understand communications while at the Games should not be considered private,” warned United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Still, one should be careful about overestimating the Russian system’s capabilities. The recent sensationalized NBC story was swiftly debunked as far-fetched, and worrisome smartphone reboots, reported by a mobile security startup, could’ve been caused by hundreds of different reasons.
There were no reports so far about the ability of SORM-backed Russian security services or cybercriminals to break into properly encrypted communications. Thus, following reasonable “digital hygiene” precautions should keep Sochi guests out of trouble. McAfee recommends locking devices with passwords, enabling encryption, avoiding software downloads and public unencrypted networks. The company also recommends leaving gadgets with sensitive data at home.
Besides digital surveillance, there are multiple other ways to be monitored in the Olympics’ physical world: cell carriers will track visitors’ locations, and RFID-imbued “spectators’ passes,” required for anyone accessing Olympic venues, will help in identifying visitors’ movement patterns. Don’t forget more than 3,500 surveillance cameras and Megafon’s “Safe City” system (1,500 additional cameras) working side by side to prevent crime.
In Sochi, video monitoring can even get inside. Dmitry Kozak, deputy prime minister of Russia, was quoted by The Wall Street Journal as saying “We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower … then leave the room for the whole day.” When reached for comments, Kozak’s spokesman said there was no video surveillance in Sochi hotel rooms or bathrooms.
Emotionally unstable and attending the Olympics? Theoretically the VibraImage will single you out.
Unsurprisingly, security is one of the things to greet Sochi visitors. At the security checkpoints, Russian company Elsys rolled out its VibraImage system to gauge people’s emotional states. The system analyzes the signal from CCTV cameras almost in real-time. It then swiftly decides, based on the tiny micro-movements of humans’ bodies, who from the crowd at a checkpoint might be agitated or potentially dangerous.
Earlier, FSB spokesman Alexei Lavrishchev said that security in Sochi would be “invisible,” as opposed to the London Olympics in 2012 that was “crammed with surveillance cameras, even, excuse me, in toilet cubicles.” This “invisible” Sochi security on the physical front is maintained by thousands of personnel, but drones are on duty, too. The light Zala Aero plane and helicopter-like drones monitor critical objects and crowds in Sochi, while the coast guard uses heavier Horizon AIR surveillance drones. Media even relies on drones to get fantastic footage. At higher altitudes, you’ll notice aerostats (with its four-mile scouting radius!) and, finally, at least five satellites up in space keeping an eye on Greater Sochi.
Technology you can brag about
Every Olympics relies on state-of-the-art technology, and Sochi is no exception to the rule. “We are committed to the Sochi 2014 Winter Games being the most digital Games ever,” said Dmitry Chernyshenko, President of Sochi 2014. Anatoly Pakhomov, a mayor of Sochi, referred to the Games as “the most technologically-savvy.”
The Official Olympics network provider Avaya dubbed Sochi as “the most connected Games ever.” The Santa Clara-based company is running network operations for the competition venues (11 total), three Olympic villages, and both Media Centers. Its network features 2,500 wireless access points to handle 120,000 concurrent device connections (compared to 1,800 and 80,000, respectively, in London 2012). The company said it had to build a model of the Olympics’ network two years in advance to thoroughly test its security and performance.
This Olympics is also the first in history to offer LTE coverage (4G). Megafon, the second largest cell carrier in Russia, said it installed more than 270 LTE-capable base stations and built over 137 miles of fiber in the region to ensure full-speed 4G experience. The company went above and beyond: at its LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) trial in Sochi, downlink speed reached 271.75Mbps, Megafon said in a statement. Unlike “common” LTE, LTE-A is far from wide adoption. Trials are happening worldwide, from UK to Australia, but commercially available LTE-A devices and networks are still rare, with South Korea and Saudi Arabia pioneering.
Megafon entered into LTE roaming agreements with five international carriers, including AT&T and Canadian Rogers, but high roaming fees might deter visitors from enjoying mobile data at blazing speeds.
Russian customers may have to use roaming on their home turf too. With no other wireless companies but Megafon allowed to build cell towers on the Olympic grounds, organizers urged all visitors to roam into Megafon’s network (for Russian customers, tariffs were advertised to remain the same as in their home networks). Expelled from the Olympic grounds, other cell operators were forced to increase the capacity and power of their stations in the region to cope with heightened demand.
Prior to the Olympics, some customers in the greater Sochi area complained about issues with incoming calls on Megafon’s LTE network. It’s unclear if the problems remain after the Olympics kicked off: there were no reported widespread concerns about connection problems in Sochi after the Games started.
Even if there were problems, the LTE connection is backed up. Rostelecom has recently launched its own LTE network in Olympic Sochi with 40 base stations, running at speeds of up to 60/20 Mbps (downlink/uplink). An LTE network, however, was somewhat of a side-project for the company, as it has been mostly focusing on the creation of the data infrastructure for the Games.
Rostelecom built more than 621 miles of fiber lines to provide 35 Olympic objects with Internet connectivity (up to 140Gbps total throughput), organized a separate 110Gbps link for 30 broadcasters, and erected several Olympic datacenters throughout the region. The main 21,528-square-feet facility consumes 2.5 MW of power, or about seven percent of the consumption of the single Google data center in The Dalles, Oregon (37 MW).
Atos, an IT services provider headquartered in France, knows what it takes to make the complex technology from numerous vendors interoperate seamlessly. The company has been running IT systems at every Olympics since 1992. In Sochi, Atos is ultimately responsible for issuing 220,000 accreditations and delivering timely results to spectators around the globe. Atos deployed 5,600 computers and 400 servers at the Olympics. The company has been working in Sochi from May 2012, and just like Avaya, it built the in-house test prototype well in advance. Last February, Atos launched The Technology Lab, a miniature version of 26 Olympic venues to thoroughly test IT systems at simulated sports events.
The large-scale thorough preparation helped: except for the minor mishaps (hotel-related, obviously), things were running smoothly on the technology side this February in Sochi.
Even the opening ceremony on February 7, the busiest event at the Olympics so far, garnered about 40,000 spectators and delivered on connectivity promises. Megafon reported 400 gigabytes of data transmitted during the ceremony (nearly five times less than the Super Bowl record this year of 1.9 terabytes).
Just 15 percent of the mobile users at the “Fisht” stadium, where the ceremony was held, connected at LTE speeds. However, these 3500 users managed to generate 50 percent of the data volume transmitted. The LTE connection speed averaged 20 Mbps during the event, the company said.