Vulnerabilities and censorship tools among hot new features in Beijing's Olympics app

Visitors have to install it 14 days prior to arrival in China until their departure

Toronto-based Citizen Lab has warned that an app required by Beijing law to attend the 2022 Olympics contains vulnerabilities that can leak calls and data to malicious users, as well as the potential to subject the user to scanning for censored keywords.

"To support the successful delivery of the Games and the safety of all Games participants, Beijing 2022 has developed the 'My 2022' application, which includes information provided by the Organising Committee, the City of Beijing and also general information," reads the International Olympic Committee's Beijing 2022 playbooks.

The playbooks [PDF], which are documents that serve as info guides for Olympics-goers, instruct international visitors to download the app and use it to monitor health for 14 days prior to their departure for China.

The attendees are also instructed to upload their vaccination certificate and COVID test results to the app and of course it stores personal identifying information like passport number.

The app's functions include real-time chat, voice audio chat, file transfers, language translating services, and bits and bobs of useful information like weather updates and GPS navigation.

While the app may be useful for many reasons, it is required of all attendees ostensibly as a method of keeping coronavirus out of the Olympics in support of China's goal of zero COVID.

These types of apps are used commonly by governments to stop the spread of COVID, but they are also commonly breached and exploited.

And while the playbook states that "My 2022 app is in accordance with international standards and Chinese law," Citizen Lab has pointed out that internet platforms in China must control content communicated via their technology or face penalties. And definitions of illegal in China are often conveniently vague.

For foreigners and foreign companies, the policies can be nerve-racking. LinkedIn jumped ship last October when it decided navigating China's censorship laws just wasn't worth it.

Citizen Lab called the app's privacy policy "straightforward," but given the range of highly sensitive information stored within, it raised the research group's eyebrows over which organizations could get access to the info – either willingly provided by the app-maker or through hacking.

The privacy policy outlines a list of entities, including the Chinese National Government and local authorities, that would potentially be provided with the data either in support of national security matters, public health incident, criminal investigations or other urgent needs. It does not say whether that data handover would be through a court order or just on an average Tuesday.

But even worse, beyond the privacy policy, the Toronto-based team found two vulnerabilities related to the transmission of user data presumed to be present on both iOS and Android versions of the app.

The first glitch is a failure from the app to validate SSL certificates and thereby leaving it open to interception by a malicious host that may spoof content back to the user. The attacker can then access the user's data, which includes both medical information and personal identifiers as well as voice audio and file attachments.

The other failure was sometimes data just didn't properly encrypt, making it available to randos, for instance someone operating a Wi-Fi hotspot in range of an unsecure Wi-Fi point or an ISP.

Citizen Lab said it disclosed the two security issues to the Beijing Organising Committee for the 2022 games on 3 December, but did not receive a response by 18 January.

As for the potential for censorship, it was found within a file bundled on the Android version called "illegalwords.txt." The file contained 2,442 keywords considered politically sensitive or just plain offensive in China, for example "Tiananmen" or "Chinese are all dogs." Citizen Lab did not find functionality for censorship within the app so could not determine whether the keyword list was entirely inactive or intentionally inactive.

"The app contains code functions designed to apply this list toward censorship, although at present these functions do not appear to be called," said the research lab.

"The censorship may have been intentionally disabled, in a bid to hide the extent of China's censorship regime from outsiders or out of pressure from the IOC, who has previously attempted negotiations with the Chinese government over what content it can and cannot censor at the games," said Citizen Lab. ®

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