Athletes beware: the 2022 Winter Olympics provide Xi Jinping with a golden opportunity to test his new data hoovering tools. 

Let’s take a look at China’s digital currency, the e-CNY, and how athletes could be tricked into helping the Chinese state fine-tune its latest surveillance weapon.

With Beijing on the world stage, China sees the Winter Olympics as the perfect opportunity to showcase its new digital currency. Issued by the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), the e-CNY is the CCP’s fight-back against Chinese tech giants – and the burgeoning crypto scene – for control of digital payments in China and beyond.

It’s no surprise the PBoC wants a slice of the pie. Since 2019, both WeChat Pay and AliPay – China’s two biggest mobile payment platforms – have had over 1bn active users, accounting for the vast majority of transactions within China. With increasing signs of China’s tech behemoths locking horns with the CCP, it’s clear to see how a mass roll-out of the e-CNY will ramp up the stakes. 

Athletes and their teams from all over the globe will have the opportunity, assuming they are allowed out of their rooms, to splash their virtual cash at a number of shops and restaurants, including athlete favourites such as Nike and…McDonalds. Athletes simply need to register for and open a digital e-CNY wallet on their mobile phone, and top up their wallet using their international bank account.

But what does Xi Jinping set to gain from the e-CNY? Aside from his desire to take over the digital currency world, the roll-out of the e-CNY marks the birth of perhaps China’s most potent tool for spying, coercion and social control. 

What will happen to my e-CNY data?

As the central regulator, the PBoC will be the entity collecting all your transaction data. This includes details of your mobile device, your account details, location, what you are purchasing and when you are purchasing it. The bank will use the data to improve its “services” to consumers, fine-tuning the digital wallet and hoping to expand the number of vendors which accept the payment system. But the data processing doesn’t stop there…

Once collected, data controlled by the PBoC can then be passed onto Chinese intelligence agencies without warning and without credible justification. While Chinese tech giants have also had to comply with the regulations, handing your data to the PBoC brings it even closer to Chinese state control. It is no secret in China just how closely the PBoC, Ministry of State Security (MSS) and Ministry of Public Security (MPS) work together to maintain the surveillance state. And we’re talking cooperation which stretches a lot further than some anti-money laundering checks…

An e-wallet display at the e-CNY pilot exhibition for the Beijing Winter Olympics (Costfoto/ Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

We know China’s intelligence services love data. They just cannot help themselves. It’s why Chinese state-backed hackers have been caught, named and shamed over and over again. Whether it’s hacking your travel data, your employment data, your academic data, your phone company’s data, or even your private health data, the Chinese state wants it all.

But it is what China’s intelligence services could do with the e-CNY data haul which is truly terrifying. This includes training algorithms to spot “unfavourable” activity, the definition of which appears broad and vague. For illustration, some past examples of unfavourable activity includes voting for a Chinese TV contestant too many times, talking about Korean pop music on Weibo, or playing computer games past your bed-time. The Australian think-tank, ASPI, released a piece last year detailing the potential for China to combine the e-CNY with its social credit system. Users of the e-CNY could then be punished for any purchases or financial activity which does not uphold Xi’s “socialist values”. If you fall foul of the e-CNY transaction police, you may one day find yourself on the same naughty step as the millions of Chinese deemed too socially disruptive to use public transport.

And you can be sure Mr Xi has global ambitions for the e-CNY, broadening its utility from a domestic surveillance capability to an international spy tool.

Key to fine-tuning Mr Xi’s latest tech surveillance tool is the collection and processing of masses of financial data. The more data there is to analyse, the quicker the algorithms will be trained to spot the activity it does not like. So if you are an athlete in Beijing, do yourselves – and Chinese shoppers – a favour: don’t feed Xi’s data beast and ditch the e-CNY wallet on your phone!    

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