China increases ticket security for Olympic ceremonies

BEIJING --

China has ratcheted up surveillance and security in every phase of the Beijing Olympics - even the tickets.

In a move unprecedented for the Olympics, tickets for the opening and closing ceremonies are embedded with a microchip containing the bearer's photograph, passport details, addresses, e-mail and telephone numbers.

The intent is to keep potential troublemakers from the 91,000-seat National Stadium as billions watch on TV screens around the world. Along with terrorists, Chinese officials fear protesters might wreck the glitzy ceremonies, unfurling Tibet flags, anti-China banners or even T-shirts adorned with strident messages.

Aside from concerns about privacy and identity theft, the high-tech tickets also threaten chaos at the turnstiles.

Tickets for the Aug. 8 opening ceremony are the most expensive of the games - a top price of $720 - and many are in the hands of dignitaries and friends. Delays could create terrible publicity on opening night.

"They should be concentrating on sniffing out the kinds of dangerous stuff rather than worrying about the identify of the people with the tickets," said Roger Clarke, an Australian security expert. His Xamax Consultancy in Canberra advises businesses in online security and identity authentication.

"The way in which you recognize an evildoer, somebody who wants to throw a bomb, somebody who wants to unfurl a Tibet flag is not on the basis of their identify," Clarke added. "It's the act that they perform and it's the materials they carry with them."

China was toughened visa restrictions and increased checks at hotels and entertainment areas - all designed to keep track of foreigners as the games approach. Several large public gatherings have been canceled. Thousands of closed-circuit TV cameras will be deployed in and around the venues. Organizers have acknowledged that some security officials will be dressed in volunteer uniforms. Passengers riding the subway and major bus routes will also undergo strict checks.

China has developed some of the world's most advanced RFID (radio frequency identification) technology, some aimed at keeping tight control over its citizens and borders. It's used on Chinese driver's licenses and ID cards.

Chinese authorities initially considered tying all 6.8 million tickets to individuals, which was attempted two years ago in soccer's World Cup in Germany. German officials eventually backed off the plan - it made tickets difficult to transfer or resell - and scanned only 500-1,000 tickets at each game rather than all tickets.

The plan was aimed at deterring scalpers and soccer hooligans. But initially it caused long lines and criticism from fans and soccer's world governing body, which said it was too strict and elaborate.

Microchips are embedded in all Beijing Olympics tickets, but only opening and closing tickets contain the photos and passport data. This makes them - in theory - nontransferable. The other tickets are transferable, and the RFID technology is being touted as a deterrent and an anti-counterfeit device. That's useful in China, which produces fake products from DVDs to heart medicine.

Ticketmaster China, the official ticketing provider for the games, predicts every event in every venue will be sold out - an Olympic first.

"We noticed the problem in Germany in 2006, and we learned a lesson from them," said Yang Yichun, director of the technology department for the Beijing organizing committee. "We have made contingency plans to deal with any potential problems."

One fan of the system is Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang, who attended a World Cup game in Dortmund two years ago and is confident Beijing's technology is better.

"We're fully prepared and we are confident we can overcome all the difficulties," Wan said.

Clarke, the Australian security expert, said inaccurate data, ticket holders mixing up tickets and the possibility for identity theft were likely.

"If somebody is handing out six tickets to six people, they somehow have to shuffle these tickets successfully to get the right ticket in the right hands," Clarke said. "If they fail and then people are separated in the queue, we'll get enormous delays at the gates."

The International Olympic Committee has said it is comfortable with Beijing's ticketing security. IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau said the RFID technology was "tested thoroughly by BOCOG this summer and satisfied both BOCOG and the IOC that the technology is sound."

Xu Chaoying, one of China's leading experts in RFID, is the general manager of Beijing Dalang Telecom Co. Ltd., which lost in a bid for the Olympic RFID contract. Xu called RFID "mature technology" and discounted the comparison to Germany.

"For the 2006 World Cup, I think the main problem was about privacy," Xu said. "People doubted whether the data in the tickets would be completely deleted. But as for the technology, there shouldn't be any problem."

Xu said it was possible the wireless technology could be disrupted, but he said any problems would be easy to fix.

Clarke disputed this. He said if Chinese officials choose to use a rudimentary RFID system, it would expose the data to easy theft. A more secure system using encrypted data would add complexity and more possibilities for chaos at the gate.

He said the high-tech ticket might also distract from procedures like frisks and bag checks, both more likely to uncover contraband entering the stadium.

"There's always a risk when you start putting efforts into an inappropriate mechanism that you deflect resources away from the important ones," Clarke said. "You reduce your effectiveness in finding flags and bombs and weapons because you've got too many people spending too much time worrying about other things."


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