Philip Boyle and Kevin D. Haggerty: Olympic-size questions about surveillance and privacy

By Philip Boyle and Kevin D. Haggerty

A group of researchers—ourselves included—recently released the Vancouver Statement of Surveillance, Security and Privacy Researchers about the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. That statement concludes with a call to all levels of government to conduct a full and open review of the costs and wider implications of securing the 2010 Games. This statement emerges from a collective concern about the potentially negative legacies of Olympic security initiatives.

The Olympic Games now amount to a machine for change, initiating processes and producing outcomes that linger long after the closing ceremonies. There are, however, some less discussed legacies pertaining to Olympic security that deserve attention.

Security comes in many forms, but in the Olympic context one cannot separate security from surveillance. A raft of surveillance measures aim to make people, places, and processes visible in new ways using diverse tactics and technologies that include new CCTV cameras, satellite monitoring, facial recognition devices, chemical detection, databases, and forms of personal credentials. Outside of airports and prisons, it is difficult to think of comparable situations where citizens are monitored to the extent they are at the Olympics.

Such surveillance “surges” are important because of the wider surveillance legacies of the Games. Many examples can be found of intensive surveillance tools remaining in place after the Games or of them being subsequently reused for markedly different purposes. Past experience suggests that in the post-9/11 period these legacies are no longer accidental, unintended, or partial outcomes. They, like transportation improvements and property development, are entirely planned deliverables—another ostensibly beneficial outcome to be “leveraged” from an opportune moment.

The Games can also generate less tangible surveillance legacies that are both vital to understand but difficult to demarcate. In many ways, the Games have become a crucible for experiments in monitoring, functioning as a real-world mock-up of new informational and technological systems that reach far beyond the time and space of the Games. Public authorities intensively scrutinize their own performances, seeking to distil security lessons that will inform future practice. Private security and technology firms capitalize on the prestige of their Olympic involvement to market their products in other contexts. In the process, each iteration of the Olympics becomes both a platform for future Games to build upon and a paradigm for securing modern societies.

The Olympics can also help normalize initiatives that in other contexts would appear excessively intrusive. The tremendous global media attention dedicated to the Games now includes a steady drip-feed of stories and images of rooftop snipers, the latest in sophisticated screening technologies, or the most recent security exercise. Such stories cumulatively provide a form of public instruction, familiarizing citizens to new routines of high security. The proliferation of rituals of security, inflated and played out on a recurring basis before a global audience, fosters a security-infused pedagogy of acceptable comportment, dress, and documentation that reinforces the sense to which it becomes self-evident that such measures are required, that they do not unduly infringe upon personal liberties, that certain dangers are pervasive—and more pressing than other risks—and that the existing constellation of security interests is inevitable.

These legacies are not being orchestrated by malevolent authorities eager to undermine personal privacy. Instead, they are the result of government authorities seeking to secure a return on their substantial investment in security for the 2010 Games. So long as these developments are debated in a full and open manner, such legacies may well prove to be beneficial outcomes in terms of public safety.

That said, we also need to be alert to the prospect of dubious security legacies, as an expanded array of intensive monitoring devices and practices originally introduced and perfected for the exceptional security risks presented by the Olympics seek out new targets after the Games have departed. It is worth contemplating whether one of the unintended consequences of the Games might be that we, as Canadian citizens, could find ourselves visible in ways for which we had not bargained.

Philip Boyle is a PhD student and Kevin D. Haggerty is an associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Alberta.



Rina LIddle

Dec 3, 2009 at 9:38am

Send your video clips, taken by your cell phones or any other video device, of the Olympic, Paralympic, Torch Relay and Celebrations to to participate in my art project. Video clips will be projected in a large-scale video public art project in Vancouver during the games. Project details can be found at

Thanks, and pass it on!


Dec 3, 2009 at 6:15pm

Funny that, on an article urging us to consider the impact of surveillance, the first comment is spam urging us to submit examples of surveillance to an 'art project'. Ha!


Dec 3, 2009 at 6:32pm

More seriously, though, I also wonder what the impact on the officials will be. No doubt advances are needed on the level of Customs and Immigration, with thousands of people streaming in from around the world. Canadian officials have always been more gracious than in other countries I have traveled to and have never, in my experience, had the sort of attitude and worldview that seems to be necessary to process people on this sort of scale (I mean this as a compliment). No doubt they'll need to harden their policies to effectively manage this event - will they return to their old selves after the Olympics are over?


Dec 28, 2009 at 7:06pm

Some of the most obtuse and undiscussed security measures take place at the borders of our countries. Our border agency may have an air of generosity now, but that reality can be changed quickly, with little to no discussion and in a way that citizens have no power to change while in the process of using the border.

The Olympics is the panopticon. I plan on watching it unfold, potentially with utter terror, into a system where observation is normalised, our manner of participation is dictated by strict security rules and disent is not only discouraged, but actually punishable.

Then, when we can't say 'no' anymore, we are at the whim of anyone who happens to come along and use our system for any means.

chet koone

Jan 15, 2010 at 10:47pm

in a free country, a free man does not need permission to do anything he desires, especially to voice for his opinions. i agree, this is an exercise by the government to see how far they can take their 'security'. it starts here and the 'olympic bylaws' will either stay, or occur more and more frequently.