How Cybersecurity During Winter Olympics Is a Massive Effort

Behind the scenes, there's a massive effort to ensure the games you see on Peacock, NBC's family of networks and online run smoothly

NBCUniversal, Inc.

It requires a massive effort to make the Olympic games happen every two years.

But behind the scenes, there’s an entire team of people working to make sure the broadcast you watch at home runs smoothly.

There is a security team of hundreds of people monitoring the cyber side of the games and blocking malicious cyberattacks every day.

"Just to kind of get give some examples here, the Olympic website alone can see tens of thousands of malicious requests per second that they need to block. So, I don't think it gets really any more real-time than that,” said Mike Spotts, chief operating officer of Cyber Defense Labs in Dallas.

Spotts offered exclusive insight into how protecting all things tied to the Olympics in the cyber world works. Previously, he has helped manage cybersecurity operations for previous games in London, Rio de Janeiro and Pyeongchang. He also worked cyber security for the Rugby World Cup and the G7 summit.

"With billions of viewers, it's critical that the broadcasting doesn't go down and that the press have constant connections to be able to make those updates to the broadcasting teams to be as in real time as possible," he said. "So there's a lot that goes on just monitoring those broadcast connections."

He said the goal is to protect not only the broadcast but all things tied to the Olympics, both on-air and online.

"Let's think about the Olympic Games, right? It's one of the most-watched sporting events in the world. And we're talking billions of viewers. So, with that comes everything from confidential data to fans purchasing tickets and memorabilia, to the press, and even various sponsors,” said Spotts. “And so, it really becomes a prime target for cyberattacks and nothing is really off-limits when it comes to the games."

In the past, he said they have dealt with phishing, malware, distributed denial of service and others attacks. Many of these attempts happen through the Olympic website but can also take the form of fake emails, fake websites and bogus streaming platforms piggybacking off the spotlight of the Olympics.

Trend Micro
An example of a fake website offering bogus online streaming services during the Tokyo Olympics.

“In the past, we've seen around 212 million attack attempts just on 2012 the London 2012 Games. Tokyo saw more than double that. So, the attacks are increasing dramatically,” Spotts said.

The cyber teams put years of work into preparing for anything, which can also be dependent on the country that hosts the Olympics.

“You've got to look at, do we need to upgrade or build infrastructure to help support that? Then really being able to run operations on a day-to-day perspective to really monitor the safety of the games,” explained Spotts. “Not many people do understand that the sheer scale of what needs to go into multiple physical locations – servers and applications that are housing confidential data. And then a network that has to really support tens of thousands of high-speed connections that are handling millions of calls, emails, text messages, pictures, and live video, so that billions of people around the world can really watch and take part of it all.”

He recalls one moment during a past event that caused his team to be on high alert.

“It was getting ready to cut to commercial and we were all sitting there watching that, all of this live. And there was just a slight delay in the commercial coming up. There's this black screen literally for maybe half a second where most people probably didn't recognize it, but all of the hair on our arms stood up. We were immediately calling and texting and finding out hey, is something going on?” he remembers. “And luckily, it wasn't. It was just a kind of transition period kind of thing happening. But again, it's something that's always being looked at.”

It just shows how serious the cyber teams are at making sure everything runs smoothly on-air, online and in-person at the games.

“On top of that, you've got this team of hundreds of security that are really monitoring this event 24/7. So, you know, over the course of the games, they analyze billions of events and are blocking millions of malicious attempts,” he added.

This year, there has also been some concern behind security within the host country, China's ties to Russia, and the escalating tension between Russia and Ukraine.

"I think there's always geopolitical concerns that have to be really understood and monitored during these types of events,” said Spotts. "It's everything from low level scammers to criminal gangs, all the way up to nation states. Some are political, social, some are social, and other for just financial gain. So it's kind of a mix of all."

During the Olympic games, viewers and spectators at home will need to watch out for fake pop-ups on the computer leading to phony Olympic merchandise, streaming opportunities and other scams.

"I think things for the average person to be mindful of is to really try to slow down and review the Olympic related links or emails that you that you're seeing or being sent," said Spotts. "If they look off or odd -- where they look too good to be true -- they usually are."

He said up to 80% of Olympic-related websites that he’s seen in the past have been scams.

“It's very easy to get caught off guard and kind of end up in trouble,” Spotts warned.

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