China Is Cracking Down On Corona With a Color Coded Tracking System
In an attempt to manage the outbreak of COVID19 and to dictate quarantines, Chinese authorities are asking its citizens to install software onto their “smartphones that dictate whether they should be quarantined or allowed into subways, malls and other public spaces”.
Inevitably, the system has had some teething problems, but its threat to personal privacy is even more concerning. Once the COVID19 crisis is over, will Chinese authorities be prepared to relinquish these newly found powers or is this just another step towards a culture of mass surveillance?
China Is Cracking Down On Corona With a Color-Coded Tracking System
China’s latest weapon against coronavirus is a QR code system created by the Chinese online payment service, Alipay. The system was launched in Hangzhou last month and, since then, has been adopted by hundreds of other cities. The plan, it seems, is to roll it out nationwide.
Citizens can sign up for the QR color-coded system, known as Health Code, via Alipay or the popular messaging service, WeChat. A green, yellow, or red code is issued to each user based on their exposure to potential carriers, their travel history, and the amount of time they’ve spent in a high-risk area.
Those allocated a yellow code are required to place themselves under house arrest for seven days, while those with a red code need to stay in quarantine for two weeks. Affected citizens must also log in to the app daily during their quarantine period if they have any hope of gaining that much-sought-after green status.
While the color-coded QR system may sound like a reasonable precaution given the severity of the COVID19 outbreak, it’s both flawed, and many fear, here to stay.
It’s currently unclear how the system assigns codes although some theorize it relies on opaque algorithms only a few of us would understand. While those allocated green codes might appreciate the greater freedom, others are mystified by their yellow or red status.
Vanessa Wong, for example, has been unable to go to work in Hangzhou for weeks since her health code turned red. Although she has no symptoms, she’s in quarantine in her hometown and is unable to return to work or her housing complex unless her code turns green.
Although there is a customer support helpline available, queries often go unanswered, leaving some unable to even nip out to the shop for some bread.
Despite the inconveniences and inaccuracies within the system, many are reassured by these high-tech precautions even if they are, according to The New York Times, “impractical and dysfunctional”. For others who are forced to quarantine themselves despite showing no symptoms, however, “fear and bewilderment” prevail.
Disease Control or Mass Surveillance?
Opinions about China’s color-coded QR symptom vary extensively throughout the world, with some perceiving this response from the government as thorough and effective. Others contend it’s the next landmark “in the history of the spread of mass surveillance in China”.
While designed to protect people, the color-coded system adopted by Chinese authorities collects pertinent information about each person, including their name, national identification number, location, and phone number.
How the government intends to use the data, and crosscheck it, remains unclear and the lack of transparency is raising concerns about what information might be shared with third parties and law enforcement agencies without direct user consent.
Although “law enforcement agencies were a crucial partner in the system’s development”, “the software does not make clear to users its connection to the police”. The QR system also “draws on information about coronavirus cases and government-held data on plane, train and bus bookings”.
This isn’t the first-time internet service providers and software developers have shared the government or law enforcement officials, but never has it been so direct. The New York Times notes, “In the United States, it would be akin to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention using apps from Amazon and Facebook to track the coronavirus, then quietly sharing user information with the local sheriff’s office”.
The color-coded app isn’t the only form of control or “government intrusion” to be introduced in response to the outbreak. Many citizens are required to hand over detailed information about themselves, their temperature and where they’ve been, simply to enter their workplace or apartment compound. Facial recognition is also being used to identify any citizens not wearing a face mask in public and to pick out anyone with an elevated temperature.
Although infection rates in China are finally falling to just a few dozen a day, it’s still enough to convince the government of the need to reduce travel and minimize human contact. Experts believe such “overbearing measures” can have a negative effect, “scaring infected people into hiding and making the outbreak harder to control”.
A global health law specialist at Georgetown University, Alexandra Phelan, says, “These community-level quarantines and the arbitrary nature in which they’re being imposed and tied up with the police and other officials are essentially making them into punitive actions — a coercive action rather than a public health action”.
Despite these views, many believe Chinese authorities will keep up the same level of surveillance even after the outbreak has been contained with one activist, Wang Aizhong, saying, “This epidemic undoubtedly provides more reason for the government to surveil the public. I don’t think authorities will rule out keeping this after the outbreak”.
Bugs in the Health Code
As technologically advanced as it sounds, the Health Code is having a few problems and its algorithms don’t always produce the right results.
One Hangzhou resident, Kaikai Shi, told reporters, “The assessment is inaccurate as far as I can tell. If someone from a severely affected area fills in the wrong info, he or she gets a green code. But if someone in Hangzhou, who has never been in touch with people from an afflicted area, fills in that he or she has a sore throat, a red code returns”.
Another type of bug in the system could see the Health Code trample over privacy rights. There have already been “several data breach incidents which have given rise to concerns over privacy and potential discrimination against people from Wuhan and Hubei Province”.
With health authorities, transportation services, law enforcement against, and property management companies all compiling data about individuals’ movements and who they’ve been in contact with, the risk to those individuals’ privacy is almost unavoidable.
Experts fear that personal privacy could be obliterated, not only by the government’s desire to gather data but also as a result of its inability to keep it safe from cyberthreats.
China’s History of Mass Surveillance
Fears that China could maintain this strict form of social policing even after the COVID19 outbreak is over are well-founded.
In the build-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Chinese authorities “transformed Beijing into a giant fortress”, with 300,000 new security cameras, surface-to-air missiles, and widespread police presence. As such, the international event “marked a turning point in renewed oppression” and gave law enforcement authorities the change to “implement more intrusive security measures”. Many of these changes have remained in place, even 12 years later.
Chinese authorities are no strangers to social control, nor to using smartphone apps to keep tabs on their citizens. Many of the techniques being implemented in response to the coronavirus outbreak are already well-established in certain areas of China.
The Xinjiang province is home to around 25 million Uighur Muslims, all of whom have been submitted to procedures that strip them of any right to privacy.
Reports indicate that Chinese authorities have developed a “secret system of advanced facial recognition technology to track and control the Uighurs”. Members of the Chinese Muslim community have also been forced to download QR codes onto their phones so officials can track their movements and even “spy on what they’re sharing with their friends”.
Given that authorities are already “using artificial intelligence for racial profiling”, the development of the Health Code app is unnerving, to say the least. With access to detailed information, including medical history and identification numbers, the potential is huge, especially when you consider the value placed on the UK’s National Health Service’s data.
Perhaps even more worrying is what the government will choose to do with this data and who else will have access to it? Furthermore, how is it going to be stored and for how long, and are there any security measures in place to protect against data breaches?
Is This the End of Privacy?
Few people believe the Chinese authorities will consider putting these new technologies “back in the box”. Many experts predict a gradual expansion of surveillance technology, with expert, Darren Byler, saying, “Once these systems are in place, once things are built, once they’re designed — you can’t put them back in the box, and once political leaders see the utility of them and see that they can extend their power, extend their control, then, of course, they will continue to use them and use them in new ways.”
Byler recognizes that the technology being applied to the coronavirus situation is the same as that being used in Xinjiang and, as such, is being employed without taking into consideration the effects it has on people’s privacy rights or the implementation of any legal protection for citizens.
As a tool, the Health Code is fundamentally flawed and designed to perform “unauthorized or non-consensual surveillance”. Given China’s history, however, that sounds like exactly the type of technology it’s liable to develop further in the future. In other words, this QR app could hang around for years to come, becoming a “human management tool” that’s as integral to Chinese culture as rice.
Although the US has already embraced much of the same surveillance technology and techniques as are used in China, the fourth amendment gives its citizens a little more protection. It may gather biometric data, utilize facial recognition software, track the online activities of its people and even use CCTV to physically locate individuals, but its constitution still protects “individuals from some searches and seizures, both digital and analog”.
At least that constitutes some reassurance that US authorities may find an alternative approach to quarantine issues that don’t impinge on its citizens’ privacy rights.
China’s willingness and ability to embrace new technology to control the coronavirus outbreak is welcome, if not enviable, but it comes at the cost of its citizens’ privacy. Furthermore, new pieces of technology, like the color-coded QR system, are being rushed into place before their efficacy has been fully assessed.
Some people are stuck at home for weeks waiting for an unreliable system to turn their code from red to green, while others who’ve been exposed to the coronavirus are free to wander.
More concerning than the inaccuracy of the app is its potential to be used as a weapon of mass surveillance. The Health Code app, like many others, tracks an individual’s location and keeps track of where they’ve been and, potentially, even who they’ve been with. This might be good news for the containment of an infectious disease, but it’s not going to win any human rights awards.
China is no stranger to mass surveillance and the likelihood of this kind of technology remaining long after the coronavirus is gone is formidably high. One office worker from Shanghai, Chen Weiyu, said, “I don’t know what will happen when the epidemic is over. I don’t dare imagine it”. Human rights activists and privacy advocates undoubtedly share those sentiments.
In the meantime, associate professor at Hong Kong’s law school, Stuart Hargreaves, says, “Intrusive surveillance is already the ‘new normal.’ The question for China is what, if any, is a level of surveillance that the population refuses to tolerate.”