Coronavirus is China’s chance to wage a data war on its own people

When the virus first appeared in Wuhan, it gave China an excuse to harvest data on all of its citizens, paving the treacherous path to becoming the first AI superpower, reports Brian McGleenon

Friday 04 December 2020 15:13
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<p>President Xi Jinping’s attempts to use data from his people to curb the spread of the virus have largely been praised</p>

President Xi Jinping’s attempts to use data from his people to curb the spread of the virus have largely been praised

For Xi Jinping, every cloud has a silver lining, even the deadly pathogen that crept out of Wuhan in December 2019, which provided the Chinese president with an opportunity to conduct an uncompromising data harvest on his people. Plans are under way to have every Chinese citizen digitally integrated into a centralised platform, accelerating Xi’s desire for AI supremacy and fully automated social control.

In late May, while most of the world was in lockdown, China announced zero new infections for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic. It also announced a new centralised digital platform, Health Code, the sole purpose of which was an unparalleled scale of data collection and storage… as well as other ominous applications. According to the Chinese government’s website, the rationale behind the National Unified Government Services Platform is to integrate into one place “public security, human resources, and social security, education, health and civil affairs”.

To feed this centralised system with data fit for the nation’s authoritarian AI revolution, the politburo has ordered myriad coronavirus contact and tracing apps to become compatible with it. Drawing the intimate data hauled from these apps into something rather more potent, Health Code aims to make every Chinese citizen transparent to the state, rather than the other way around. As Chris Meserole, director of research and policy at the Brookings Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative, tells me: “Beijing is trying to create a taxonomy that sits on top of the Health Code apps in the hopes that the data will become interoperable over time.”

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