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Putin’s Olympic security tracks terrorists, or political rivals?

President Vladimir Putin  of Russia with the Olympic Flame.

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

President Vladimir Putin of Russia with the Olympic Flame.

PREVENTING TERRORIST plots is rightfully a top priority at next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, a Russian resort on the Black Sea near several of the country’s most volatile regions, including the northern Caucasus. Still, recent reports that Russia has installed a surveillance system at the site that will allow security services to monitor virtually all phone and Internet traffic in the city are troubling. Journalists and business travelers who have sensitive information to protect should heed the warnings of the US State Department and others to leave laptops and smartphones at home.

Dubbed SORM, the system dates back to the Soviet era but is being modernized across Russia today. Special attention, however, is being paid to Sochi due to the large number of foreign visitors and athletes expected for the Olympic Games, according to documents collected by prominent Russian security analyst Andrei Soldatov. Drones and closed-circuit cameras will aid in the information collection.

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The scope and scale of the surveillance will be unprecedented, Soldatov’s findings suggest, and the spying will likely go beyond listening in for potential security threats. The FSB, the KGB’s post-Soviet successor, is expected also to be paying close attention to chatter regarding political enemies of President Vladimir Putin, including the popular opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Another target may well be defenders of gay rights, likely to be one of the most controversial issues at the Games, because of Russia’s new law criminalizing any expression of a gay lifestyle.

Putin has not appointed an anti-terrorism expert to oversee security at Sochi, but instead the FSB’s longstanding head of counterintelligence, Oleg Syromolotov. Critics are right to question this choice, and whether it means Putin’s higher security concern at the Games is hunting down terrorists or rooting out supposed foreign spies. American attendees should proceed with caution.

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