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Securing the gold in Athens

Despite age-old Olympic truce known as the ekecheiria, or "holding of hands," security experts aren't taking any chances.

Since the ninth century B.C., countries participating in the Olympic Games have agreed to a cessation of hostilities for the duration of the event, a pact known in Greek as the ekecheiria, or "holding of hands."


What's new:
The total tally for security precautions and operations for the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad in Athens will exceed $1.5 billion, five times more than the tab for the 2000 Games, in Sydney, Australia.

Bottom line:
Overseers are hoping that a combination of tried-and-true hardware and groundbreaking information systems will keep athletes, spectators and others safe from terrorist groups and other potential threats.

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But three millennia after the first contests, those planning the security for the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad are hedging their bets when it comes to traditional gestures of good will. Greece has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on security technology as part of its larger $1.5 billion tab for ensuring the safety of athletes, spectators and others.

"Our top priority is being implemented: The most comprehensive, best-staffed and best-funded security operation in the history of the Olympic Games is in place," Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Athens 2004 organizing committee, told members of the International Olympic Committee Executive Board this past Sunday.

When the Athens 2004 Olympic Games kick off Friday, almost 70,000 security personnel will be overseeing the event, with help from a cornucopia of new technologies.

More than 1,100 20-foot poles topped with video cameras, speakers and microphones will create a distributed net of surveillance posts aimed at locating disturbances quickly. Barcode scanners and ID cards will allow athletes and trainers into the Olympic Village, and the Games' scoring and information system will be operating on a closed citywide network. A blimp will hover over the venues with sensitive surveillance technologies to give a bird's-eye view of any threat to the Games.

According to David Tubbs, project manager for the company that built the security infrastructure for the Athens Olympics as part of a nearly $300 million contract, none of these technologies is new. The blimp, for instance, was used in Atlanta in 1996, and video cameras are a staple of the games. But there's good reason for that.

"This is my third Olympics, and you don't experiment with new technology at the Olympics," said Tubbs, senior vice president and project manager for system integrator Science Applications International. "You don't come in and try new things, because it is not a good place to increase your risk."

Technologies must prove their mettle and become commonplace in the corporate world before they make the team, Tubbs said. For example, biometrics, which use fingerprints, iris scans and other biologically determined marks to verify identity, have yet to establish themselves in the corporate realm. They've been tested at the Olympics since Atlanta in 1996 but have failed to catch on. Each time, the event management falls back on ID cards equipped with the relatively low-tech bar code.

Officials estimate that the total tally for the security precautions and operations will exceed $1.5 billion, five times more than the security tab for the 2000 Games, in Sydney, Australia.

The preparations are warranted, because the ekecheiria has not trumped violence in the modern era. The Olympics have been postponed three times--in 1914, 1940 and 1944--during the two World Wars. And, the attempted kidnapping and eventual killing of 11 Israeli athletes by eight Palestinian gunmen in September 1972 made the specter of terrorism a permanent Olympic ghost.

The main terrorist threat to the Athens Olympics will likely be al-Qaida, according to Cyprus-based Civilitas Research, a group of geopolitical experts focusing on the Mediterranean region.

"The danger of Palestinian terrorism appears to be slight," the group concluded in a recent report, citing Greece's history of supporting the Palestinian state within the United Nations. In late June, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat pledged that Palestinians would adhere to an Olympic truce.

"The biggest threat is generally felt to be posed by al-Qaida and its affiliates. (That) has led to the current, unprecedented levels of security for the Athens Games," Civilitas said.

Officials hope that the hundreds of microphone-equipped surveillance posts will let them distinguish among car crashes, explosions and gunfire, and allow them to quickly pinpoint the location of an incident. Technology from software maker Autonomy is designed to enable security personnel to organize the incoming data.

Contrary to some published reports, Tubbs said, the microphones will not be able to listen in on conversations and convert what people say into searchable text. The microphones are 20 feet off the ground, and Greece has privacy laws, he stressed.

"We aren't operating the equipment," Tubbs said. "These have to be used by the government."

The security of the Olympic scoring and information system is the responsibility of another company: Atos Origin of France, which gained the contract when it purchased SchlumbergerSema.

On July 20, Atos Origin completed its first technical tests of its systems, running more than 300 scenarios from computer viruses to rescheduled sports events. On the eve of the start of the Games, the system was still being checked, said Jean Chevallier, head of information security for Atos' network-management team at the Athens Olympic Games.

As opposed to the steadfast security hardware, building the information systems led Atos into a lot of new territory, Chevallier said.

"We didn't spend too much time making assumptions from the past," Chevallier said. "What happened four years ago, is totally different than what might happen today."

The Olympics have become the premier testing ground for technologies to secure other events, but also for technologies that will likely be used to secure other nations. The success of the security technology could spark the interest of the United States government and its quest for new technologies for homeland security.

However, the technologies will not work on a larger scale and for extended periods of time, said Bruce Schneier, a well-known security expert and author of Beyond Fear, a book on terrorism and its effect on people.

"It is a short event," he said, "so there are things that you can do that you can't do in the real world forever, like the blimp."