Surveillance Games

By Philip J. Boyle and Kevin D. Haggerty

February 25, 2009

Now that the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics are receding into memory, we can contemplate the wider significance of this travelling five ring circus. The games now amount to a machine for change, initiating processes that operate at different levels to produce legacies that reverberate long after the closing ceremonies. The Olympics have never been exclusively about sports excellence. The fact that athletes perform under a national flag gives the games larger geopolitical overtones, something that has occasionally threatened to crush any spirit of friendly competition. The transformation of the Olympics into a premiere advertising platform also means that the Olympics have corporate legacies that linger long after the victors sign their sponsorship deals. At the local level, the construction projects that now comprise an inevitable part of planning for the Games can also forever transform host cities.

Securing the Games

There are, however, some less discussed Olympic legacies pertaining to security and surveillance that deserve attention. Since the 1972 Munich Games, when Palestinian militants murdered 11 Israeli athletes, event organizers have been anxious about security. Such fears were borne out again when Eric Rudolph detonated a bomb at the Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, killing one person and injuring over 100 others. The recent spate of terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, London and Madrid have put security on the agenda like never before, altering the face of the Games while also producing a host of wider technological and attitudinal legacies.

The September 11th terrorist attacks helped radically expand the corporate market in security products and services to such an extent that we can now speak of a global ‘homeland security industrial complex.’ While Olympics security only claims a fraction of the total amount spent on security internationally, the security price tag for these events can still be impressive. China probably spent the most ever on Olympics security, but given the secrecy of the Chinese regime we will likely never know the true costs. The Athens Games in 2004 had the highest documented security costs at $1.5 billion (US). While such a sum is dwarfed by the billions of dollars that the U.S. government is now throwing at private financial firms, 1.5 billion is still a lot of money to dedicate to securing a seventeen day event. Indeed, if the money spent only on security for the Athens games were instead distributed equally among the Greek population, every man, woman and child in this country of 11 million people, would have received a check for $1.36 million.

Testing Grounds for New Technologies

Security costs cover many things, but in the current context one cannot separate security from surveillance. A raft of surveillance measures aim to make people, places and processes visible in new ways using diverse tactics and technologies. It would be prohibitive to list all of the surveillance-related technologies and practices deployed at the Games, but some notable initiatives include biometric identification cards, RFID-enabled tickets, heat detectors, computerized background checks, CCTV cameras, magnetometers, satellite monitoring, cellular telephone monitoring (both legal and illegal), chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear material detection devices, overhead communications/monitoring blimps, traveller screening and the increased integration of artificial intelligence into a host of private and public sector databases. In light of these developments cultural critic Naomi Klein proclaimed in a recent edition of Rolling Stone that the Beijing Games provide a vision of ‘Police State 2.0’, because of how the authorities used the pretext of Olympic security to expand, intensify, and integrate the technological monitoring of both dissident and law-abiding citizens.

This connection with surveillance makes the Olympics important moments in the development and dispersal of surveillance. Public officials consciously use the pretext of the Olympics to introduce forms of surveillance that the public might oppose in any other context, capitalizing on the fact that in anticipation of the Games citizens tend to be more tolerant of intrusive security measures. As the Games are bounded in space and time, security planners also treat them as an opportunity to conduct real-world tests of new informational and technological systems. The Olympics have consequently become a crucible for experiments in monitoring.

Leaving a Legacy

Such developments are important because of the wider surveillance legacies of the Games. Executives, drawn to the prospect of a financial windfall, are developing innovative, intensified and integrated monitoring technologies specifically for the unique risks posed to the Olympics games. In the process, the surveillance infrastructure established for the Olympics expands and each new iteration becomes the standard to build upon for future Games. After the event, however, these systems do not disappear, but are often marketed as security solutions for other major events and more prosaic security situations. Security firms capitalize on the prestige of their Olympic involvement to market their products. Designed for the unique risks of an exceptional global sporting event, the technologies, expertise and contacts characteristic of Olympic security therefore risk dispersing into more mundane contexts. Moreover, the monitoring technologies developed and deployed for the Olympics are not necessarily removed at the conclusion of the games. For example, when the Athens games were over, the extensive network of CCTV cameras introduced specifically for Olympics security were reconfigured for ‘traffic monitoring’. We can expect to see this type of ‘surveillance creep’ on a more monumental scale in China.

Future Promises

Potential host cities must already make elaborate promises regarding security provision that is responsible in large part for some of the Olympic budget escalations that recent Games have exhibited. Future Olympics host cities may follow two apparently contradictory directions when in comes to security budgets, each of which are typified by current contenders for the 2016 Games. On one hand security budgets may in fact fall as potential host cities make significant inward investments into their security infrastructures prior to making an Olympic bid in order to make itself marketable as a suitable host city, thereby wiping significant amounts from later budgets. The legacy, it seems, may come to precede the event. This is precisely Chicago’s tactic as it builds up the city’s Virtual Shield, an elaborate network of integrated law enforcement and private sector surveillance cameras that blanket everything inside of the Loop and which, not accidentally, employs face recognition technology first developed by IBM for the 2008 Beijing Games. On the other hand we may witness further dramatic escalations in security budgets as potential hosts seek to purchase security at ever-greater costs. Rio de Janeiro has recently disclosed its budget for the 2016 Games as $14.4 billion (US), a figure almost equal to the combined budgets of the other three competitors for the 2016 Games. What makes this figure truly remarkable is that organizers state they already have most of the venues Rio would need to host the Games, thereby raising the question of just how much would be spent on security if venue construction is not the primary budget line.

Increasing Tolerance

Beyond the role of the Olympics in creating and extending new surveillance measures, the Games can also shape public attitudes in ways that are both vital to understand but difficult to demarcate. The tremendous global media attention dedicated to the Games now involves a steady drip-feed of stories about security preparations. Reporters photograph rooftop snipers, map security zones, and provide wide-eyed accounts of the technological abilities of new screening technologies. Such stories cumulatively amount to a form of public instruction in security. Citizens are familiarized with the new routines of high security, a process that helps normalize practices that might otherwise be seen as intrusive. The proliferating security routines characteristic of the Olympics therefore fosters a security-infused pedagogy of acceptable comportment, dress and documentation, as small lessons in security are inflated and played out before a global audience on a recurring basis. This reinforces the sense to which it becomes self-evident that such measures are required, that they do not unduly infringe upon personal liberties, that certain dangers are pervasive – and more pressing than other risks - and that the existing constellation of security interests is inevitable.

The Legacy of Vancouver 2010…

Such legacies have emerged from many previous Olympics in recent decades. However, in the post-9/11 period, these legacies are no longer accidental, unintended or partial outcomes. They, like transportation improvements and property development, are entirely planned deliverables, just another beneficial outcome to be ‘leveraged’ from an opportune moment. As these legacies continue to reach beyond the time and space of the event to shape the practices and expectations that make up the balance between invasive security and convenience, mobility, and civil rights in open, democratic societies, the Games themselves provide a glimpse of a possible militarized, surveilled urban future. As the Olympics machine starts to turn its attention to Vancouver in anticipation of the 2010 Winter games, it is worth taking a moment to contemplate whether one unanticipated consequence of the Games is that we, as Canadian citizens, might not find ourselves visible in ways for which we had not bargained.