Will Olympic Security Chill Protests?

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David Gray / Reuters

Police conduct security checks on Tiananmen Square prior to a celebration of the one-year countdown to the start of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games.

As Beijing kicks off its one-year countdown to the Olympics, it is erecting an elaborate security system that will enable authorities to keep an eye on threats to athletes next summer. The equipment is state-of-the-art and powerfully comprehensive, so much so that political activists and human rights groups fear the system will be used to keep tabs on China's residents for years to come.

The Security Industry Association, a Washington-based group, issued a report showing that China's investment in video camera surveillance and other measures — $300 million spent on Olympic venues and $6.5 billion on the capital itself — will easily make Beijing the most protected city in the history of the games. (Athens, which hosted the first Summer Olympics after the September 11 terrorist attacks, spent less than a quarter of that on security, about $1.5 billion.)

The report, compiled for SIA by a market research firm in China, said nearly half of the funds spent on Olympic venues will secure gymnasiums, competition areas, training facilities, hotels, athlete housing and media centers. Access to those places will be tightly controlled by electronic passes and biometric keys — fingerprint and iris scanning — for sensitive areas. Beijing officials have established an anti-terrorism and bomb disposal force to deal with those threats, the report noted, giving no detail on the size or costs of it. Nearly $30 million has gone into video surveillance for the Olympic venues, including cameras with long ranges and no blind spots. Images will appear in real time on PC monitors in command centers.

The report didn't address the more far-reaching, multibillion-dollar network of video cameras and monitors for elsewhere in a capital city already thick with uniformed and undercover police. Security experts say Beijing will be bristling with as many as a million video cameras, some so powerful they can spot the sweat beading on athletes as well as the facial characteristics of pro-democracy and labor union advocates who gather privately or try to protest publicly.

"This kind of vast surveillance and security system is like a hanging sword over the whole games," says Sharon Hom, of New York-based Human Rights in China. Hom fears that signs identifying surveillance zones will deter Chinese activists from public meetings and protests, and that less visible cameras will store evidence against them and spy afterwards. Despite public pledges by Communist authorities not to abuse such data, she said, the government's record of cracking down on protest and political independence is "not reassuring." SIA director Mark Visbal says the stated goal of the new system is vigilance against terrorism and the protection of the athletes who might be targeted. Says Visbal, "They'll be every bit as safe as they would be in the U.S. or one of the European Union countries."

U.S.-based companies supplied a chunk of the high-tech equipment. The report named GE Security, Honeywell Security Protection Group and Pelco. U.S. law requires licenses for the export of crime control and detection equipment to all but allied nations, a legal process further complicated for China after its bloody 1989 crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Congress suspended licenses for such sales. However, the list of crime control and detection devices that require export licenses in the first place does not include video surveilance cameras, monitors or the range of electronic security sold for the Olympics.