Techbeat: Olympic technology

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, March 12th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo.

They open July 24th, next year, welcoming thousands of athletes from all over the world. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of tourists.

EICHER: The games provide Japan opportunities and threats: on the one hand, the Olympics give that tech-savvy country a chance to showcase the best of its engineering prowess. But the massive event will also poses unique security challenges.

REICHARD: WORLD Radio technology reporter Michael Cochrane has been following some technology trends in Japan and how the country is preparing for the Olympic games. He joins me now and Michael, talk about some of Japan’s security concerns in the run-up to the games. How are they planning for them?

MICHAEL COCHRANE, REPORTER: Well, one of the biggest security concerns is one that didn’t even exist when Tokyo last hosted the Olympics in 1964: hacking of internet-connected devices.

REICHARD: Really! Does the government anticipate some kind of cyber attack during the games?

COCHRANE: Yes. They’re concerned that hackers might launch attacks against the Games’ IT infrastructure by targeting devices connected to the internet such as webcams and routers. It’s happened before – Russian hackers deployed the Olympic Destroyer malware prior to the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in South Korea last year.

REICHARD: So what are they doing?

COCHRANE: The Japanese government approved a law in January that will allow government tech workers to hack into private citizens’ internet-connected devices to root out potential vulnerabilities. They plan to compile a list of unsecured devices that might be using default and easy-to-guess passwords.

This survey kicked off last month and will test the security of more than 200 million devices, beginning with routers and webcams.

REICHARD: I can’t imagine people were very happy with that decision!

COCHRANE: No, it sparked outrage in Japan. But weak passwords on IoT devices is a common avenue for hackers to launch huge denial of service and other types of attacks, so it might just force people to secure their devices better.

REICHARD: What else are they doing with technology to beef up security?

COCHRANE: Well, this one’s not just for security but also for efficiency. Japanese electronics giant NEC is providing a large-scale facial recognition system for the Olympics that it will use to identify over 300-thousand people associated with the games. That includes athletes, volunteers, media and other personnel.

REICHARD: How will this system make things more efficient?

COCHRANE: Unlike a lot of previous Olympics, the Tokyo games won’t have a single Olympic park containing all the venues and facilities. The events will be spread out all over metropolitan Tokyo, and people will have to authenticate themselves at each of these places.

REICHARD: So, this system will speed up the process?

COCHRANE: Exactly! They’re also concerned with the dangers of long wait times during what’s expected to be one of Japan’s hottest summers.

REICHARD: What else do you have for us?

COCHRANE: Well, Tokyo’s going to be inundated with international visitors next year. And most of them are used to paying for things using credit cards or digital payments. I didn’t actually know this, but even though Japan has the world’s third largest economy, most payments there involve cash.

REICHARD: That seems so strange in a country so technologically advanced!

COCHRANE: It does – the country has more than 200,000 ATMs!

REICHARD: So, what are they planning to do about this?

COCHRANE: The Japanese banking system as it’s currently structured isn’t really equipped to handle the billions of dollars that visitors will spend using electronic payments. So some of the country’s biggest banks are teaming up with U.S. internet company Akamai to leapfrog past credit cards and develop a crypto-currency network based on blockchain technology in time for the Olympics.

According to MIT Technology Review, if they pull it off, it could be the fastest and most powerful consumer payment network yet.

REICHARD: How else is technology going to be used for the Olympics?

COCHRANE: Toyota’s planning to demonstrate a driverless shuttle service at the Olympic venues, but I thought the most interesting use of technology was the way the Japanese Olympic Committee is getting the gold, silver and bronze for all the medals it will hand out. They’re mining them from discarded smartphones and other electronic devices.

REICHARD: Wow! I guess it makes sense that modern electronics would have metals like that. But wouldn’t you have to collect a lot of old phones to get the amount of precious metals you’d need?

COCHRANE: Turns out that wasn’t an issue. This initiative, called the Medal Project, is a sensation across Japan with about 90 percent of the country’s municipal authorities taking part. As of late last year, they’ve collected more than 47-thousand tons of devices and about 5 million used mobile phones. That’s more than enough for the 25-hundred medals needed for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

REICHARD: Just how much gold, silver and bronze are we talking about?

COCHRANE: 6,000 pounds of bronze, 9,000 pounds of silver and 66 pounds of gold. Turns out there’s not much real gold in a gold medal!

REICHARD: Huh! Well, who knew? Michael Cochrane is WORLDS science and technology reporter.  Before you sign off, Michael, we got to take a moment here and do something I really don’t want to do. And that is say farewell to you as our science and technology correspondent.

COCHRANE: I know, Mary, I haven’t really been looking forward to this, either.  

REICHARD: Well, you and I met at the very first WJI class, World Journalism Class,  for mid-career people, in Asheville. How long ago was that now?

COCHRANE: Well gosh that was the fall of 2011. So yeah, that’s a while ago now.

REICHARD: OK. Well, my first impression of you was of an officer and a gentleman, and that God really blessed you with talent in both science and arts. Not something He saw fit to bless me with, that’s for sure.

COCHRANE: (laughs) Well, God saw fit to bless you with a radio voice and a personality to boot. So you’re a natural for this and we knew it. All of us knew it right then at that World Journalism Institute course.

REICHARD: Aw, you’re very kind. Thank you. But here you are opening a new chapter in your life and in Maria’s life, your wife. Tell us where y’all are going.

COCHRANE: Well, I’m taking a new job down in the Huntsville, Alabama area at Redstone Arsenal as a systems engineer and so I’m going to have to be devoting pretty much most of my time to getting up to speed on that.

REICHARD: Well that is your expertise in the other side of life, is it not?


REICHARD:  I’ve told you this already, but it’s the truth: you and Maria have had immeasurable influence on me in the best possible ways, and I’ll always be  in your debt. And I’m going to miss you.

COCHRANE: Well, I give praise to God for that, Mary. You’ll always be a friend. And this is not the end. We’ll always be in contact with each other.

REICHARD: God bless you, friend.

COCHRANE: God bless you!


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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