How mobile tracking has become part of everyday life in China

Although China is where the COVID-19 outbreak begun, as of April resulting in over 80,000 cases and 3,000 deaths, the outbreak there is now mostly under control. China’s success in drastically flattening the curve in just a few weeks, even to the extent of reporting no new cases for several days, is now of much envy across the world, where cases recently doubled from 500,000 to one million in just one week.

The strict lockdown of 60 million people in Hubei province from January 23 is to thank for halting the spread of the virus there. A world first, its news naturally shocked the world, but its success compelled desperate countries, most notably Italy and Spain, to follow suit.

Technology has also played a crucial role in preventing the spread of the virus to the rest of China, an area over 50 times larger in size and 22 times larger in population than Hubei province. There have been multiple technologies deployed to fight COVID-19, but this week we take a look at tracking technologies.

Health code systems

Most prominent are the health code systems, the most widely used being Alipay Health Code. The programme, developed by the Chinese government and hosted on the Alipay app through an API, gives its users a green-, yellow-, or red-coloured QR code. The codes indicate whether the user is free to enter public spaces such as malls, office buildings, and bars, or whether they should quarantine themselves for seven or 14 days.

Credit: Raymond Zhong/The New York Times

The health code systems have helped identify individuals who did not know they were likely to have been infected and given them clear instructions on what they should do next. However, exactly where this data comes from remains unclear, leaving many confused and without a chance to enquire or appeal if the app instructs them to quarantine. Nor are they entirely sure of when their code will turn green.

A recent New York Times article reported that an official webpage for the app explains that a yellow or red code is given to those who have had contact with an infected person, visited a virus hot spot, or reported having symptoms when signing up to the mini-app. This suggests the system draws on a wide range of data sources, including phone location and transport ticket bookings. The New York Times’ analysis of the app’s code also found out that user information appears to be shared with the police.  

Tencent has also rolled out a similar feature in their multi-purpose messaging app WeChat. One use case has been letting students in China know whether they are allowed to return to school. In Hong Kong, which has suffered a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, a tracking device is used to monitor the quarantine of those entering the territory. Arriving passengers are given electronic wristbands connected to an app. Anyone disobeying the rules or providing false information faces an HKD 5,000 (USD 644) fine and imprisonment for six months.

A new trend?

Before the pandemic, such use of surveillance would have been reserved for criminals on bail. However, the world has changed beyond recognition in the past few weeks. In Israel, technology previously used to counter-terrorism is now being used to enforce quarantines and track the movements of people testing positive for COVID-19. In Hungary, rule by decree with no time limit has passed in parliament.

Though not always as extreme, throughout much of Europe emergency legislation is being brought in to give governments more durable powers to carry out surveillance during the pandemic. The technologies governments are using will go on to serve as infrastructure for fighting global health emergencies. Whether the technologies will remain as new tools for domestic spying will be a topic for scrutiny in the coming months.

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