Sochi 2014 Journalists Athletes Monitored
Members of the U.S. bobsleigh team arrive to the Sochi's airport in Adler, January 31, 2014. Reuters

The Russian authorities are planning to monitor the online activity of every athlete, organiser and journalist during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which begin later this week.

Last year Russian prime minister Dimitry Medvedev signed into law a decree which, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, authorises the government to "collect telephone and internet data of the Games' organisers, athletes, and others, with particular emphasis on journalists. The latter are mentioned twice in the decree."

With revelations about about widespread US and UK governmental spying dominating the headlines for the last six months, it should come as no surprise that the Russian government is looking to do something similar.

With many journalists travelling to Russia in order to cover storied away from the spectacle of sports - such as alleged corruption and the country's anti-gay stance - there will be a lot of journalists looking to avoid the glare of the Federal Security Bureau (FSB).

Therefore the European Federation of Journalists asked security expert and journalist Alan Pearce to come up with a guide to help journalists keep their work secret in Russia.

Before you go

Pearce advises journalists travelling to Sochi to wipe clean their laptops, smartphones or tablets of any personal or sensitive data which they wouldn't want falling into the wrong hands. He suggests backing it up to an SD card or USB stick for safe keeping.

One of the biggest problems facing journalists is that traditional anti-virus software is no longer seen as trustworthy, after revelations that the NSA and GCHQ (and more than likely the FSB) have created backdoors in a lot of the commercially available programs so that they can circumvent your security.

To get around this, Pearce suggests using open-source anti-spyware and anti-malware on all your devices. The advantage of open source is that the code is community-monitored and therefore should contain no backdoors.

Glitter Nail Polish

Upon landing in Russia, it is likely that the authorities will search through your belongings. While it is advisable to try and keep your electronic devices with you at all times, it will be hard to argue with the Russian authorities if they ask to inspect your phone.

It would be very easy for the Russian authorities to quickly install software on your phone or laptop while out of your sight, allowing them track your movements.

Pearce therefore suggests applying a coating of glitter nail polish around any ports or openings, and then take a photo of it with your smartphone. "The glitter in the polish provides a unique pattern that cannot be replicated and which can later be compared to the photo."

Airplane mode

Switching on Airplane mode and disabling GPS on your smartphone is a quick and easy way to make the Russian authorities' job of tracking your movements much harder.

Going one step further, when meeting a contact Pearce suggests taking the battery out of your phone if possible, because if your phone has been bugged, it can still be used to listen to your conversations.

If, like a lot of modern smartphones, your phone doesn't give you access to the battery, then Pearce suggests not taking your phone with you if you are meeting someone you don't want anyone to know about.

Common Sense

A lot of what Pearce says is common sense but worth listening to. For example, he says if the organisers are handing out free SIM cards under the pretence of making it easier to contact you, then you should probably treat such SIM cards with suspicion.

Pearce also points out that you should pay particular attention to potential phishing emails with enticing links. A quick way to avoid infection via email is to disable HTML in your email's settings menu.

Deep underground with Tor

The tool used by many investigative journalists on a daily basis, Tor is a free-to-use system which anonymises your internet traffic, allowing you to communicate in relative safety.

In order to use Tor on Media Centre computers, Pearce suggests carrying a USB drive installed with the Tor-Firefox browser which you can use on any PC.

For journalists not used to using the Tor system, it is advisable to test it out prior to travelling to Sochi, as searching "How to use Tor?" while there would probably raise some red flags.


Pearce has also gathered together a list of smartphone apps which help scramble your calls and messages, allow you to continue recording audio and video even when you phone is switched off, and even accessing Tor on your Android or iOS device.