China Snooping on Olympic Hotel Guests, ABC Learns

China is installing Internet spying equipment in major hotels in Beijing.

February 18, 2009, 9:18 PM

BEIJING, Aug. 1, 2008 -- The skies are bluer and the Internet is freer in Beijing today after a week of censorship controversy and thick pollution plagued Olympic officials and journalists. But the situation at the Games, which begin in a week, is far from perfect.

The Chinese government lifted some Internet restrictions after journalists and other groups complained that promises for press freedom during the games were violated.

However, loosened controls do not mean the Chinese will stop monitoring all foreign activities. On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said that the Chinese government had installed Internet-spying equipment in all the major hotel chains serving the Olympics. He revealed a Chinese document that required such hotels to use monitoring devices during the Olympics.

Several major international hotel chains confirmed receiving the order to install online monitoring devices, Brownback said, citing a translated version of a document issued by China's Public Security Bureau.

One major international hotel chain, which operates in several Olympic host cities, told ABC News on condition of anonymity that they were recently contacted by Chinese authorities who requested that hotels install monitoring devices in their rooms, allowing the authorities to spy on guests.

This hotel chain, independently contacted by ABC, said that if they are forced, they will install the devices.

"The Chinese government has put in place a system to spy on and gather information about every guest at hotels where Olympic visitors are staying," Brownback said in a statement. "This means journalists, athletes' families and other visitors will be subjected to invasive intelligence gathering by the Chinese Public Security Bureau."

"I am very disappointed that the Chinese government will not follow through on its promise to the International Olympic Committee to maintain an environment free of government censorship during the Games," Brownback continued.

Monitoring and censorship of the Internet are common practices in China. Chinese citizens are routinely blocked from accessing Web sites related to traditionally controversial content including discussion on Taiwan independence and Tibet. Popular Western sites such as Wikipedia and Blogger are randomly blocked as well.

Concerned experts have warned Olympics visitors to bring "clean" laptops to guard from what they anticipate to be electronic information theft.

"People who are going to China should take a clean computer, one with no data at all," Phil Dunkelberger, chief executive of security software firm PGP Corp, told Reuters.

Dunkelberger and other experts recommended data encryption to protect contacts, business plans, and e-mails sent from China. Even if Internet monitoring devices are not installed in a hotel room, travelers with Blackberries or laptops could unknowingly offer personal or business information to government monitors.

The Beijing Public Security Bureau did not respond to requests for comment regarding Internet monitoring devices in Beijing hotels.

The hotel spying allegations surfaced as foreign journalists working in the Olympic Village press center were blocked from accessing Web sites, including homepages for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch along with sites related to Tianenmen Square and Tibetan exile groups.

The censorship came as a surprise after insistence by the International Olympic Committee that one of the main benefits of awarding the games to Beijing was that the event would make China freer and more open.

On Thursday night, Beijing loosened Internet controls after journalists reported a previously unknown agreement between IOC members and the Beijing committee (BOCOG) agreeing to censorship of major Web sites at Olympic press areas.

On Friday, IOC vice president Gunilla Lindberg told Reuters, "The issue has been solved."

"The IOC Coordination Commission and BOCOG met last night and agreed," she said on Friday. "Internet use will be just like in any Olympics."

However, this does not yet seem to be the case. Chinese authorities in Beijing have said that "Internet access is sufficient and convenient," though the provided access has fallen short of the original promise made by Beijing and the International Olympic Committee of "complete freedom" for domestic and foreign media groups.

Sites related to traditionally controversial subjects remained out of reach as of Friday afternoon in Beijing.

"The unblocking of sites…is a step forward," the Foreign Correspondents Club of China said in a statement. "But it is regrettable that other sites, such as those related to Falun Gong and Tibet exile groups, remain off limits."

Students for a Free Tibet, a group that plans to protest the Beijing Olympics, expressed anger at the censorship controversy.

"The IOC is not true to its word, has never been true to its word, and the leadership of Jacques Rogge has seriously and forever damaged the Olympic movement and all that it means to the world," Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet International, told ABC News in a teleconference on Friday.

With the Olympics seven days away, Beijing is doing its best to calm critics and repair damage. Today, in a press conference with a small group of journalists, Chinese President Hu Jintao sounded hopeful.

"The Chinese government and the Chinese people have been working in real earnest to honor the commitments made to the international community."

Whether Beijing will deliver, however, remains to be seen.

Beth Loyd and Reuters contributed reporting to this story.

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