The Chinese government used technology to get a grip on coronavirus – and take control of its people

The Chinese government has spent years developing technologies that facilitate intrusive mass surveillance. Now it is putting them into practice, violating the right to privacy

June Ko
in Hong Kong
Tuesday 14 April 2020 10:07 BST
Medical teams in China smile as they remove their masks one by one

Welcome to a world where the government knows which cities you’ve visited, who you’ve taken train journeys with – even which films you watched at the cinema.

This is China during Covid-19, as it uses every weapon in its powerful technological armoury to combat the deadly pandemic that is now sweeping the globe.

But as the country gradually emerges from lockdown, there are questions about how these surveillance tools, employed to address the public health crisis, could be used more widely – and more repressively – in ways that threaten privacy and curb freedom of expression.

And as the UK reportedly invests in similar technology, should Europeans also be concerned about how their data is being used in the name of public health?

Most people living in China are used to giving up personal data to access public services, and during the pandemic the government’s demand for it has become ever-more intrusive. In February, China’s top three telecoms companies sent out mass text messages offering to send customers information about the spread of the virus in the cities they had visited (where they had stayed for four hours or longer) in the past 15 or 30 days. The concept is similar to the NHS mobile phone app currently in development.

Although the Chinese service was “voluntary”, and for many people no doubt convenient, the information was soon being used to restrict movement. Many train stations, and even residential neighbourhoods, required passengers and residents to provide such information as a way of verifying whether they had been to areas hard-hit by the virus (such as Hubei Province) before allowing them to enter.

It’s worth noting that mobile phone roaming or GPS data can’t pinpoint where a person has been with 100 per cent accuracy. Many people have complained they’ve been reported as “roaming” somewhere they did not physically go.

In a similar move, cities including Shanghai and Shenzhen have started requiring commuters to register for city subway services. Only those declaring their identity on a phone app can take the train. The idea is to track whether people have travelled with someone suspected of being infected, and to then monitor their close contacts. A similar identity verification system has been suggested for cinemas when they reopen, with moviegoers asked to provide their personal details in order to take their seat.

Meanwhile, tech giants such as messaging service WeChat and payment platform Alipay have released colour-based QR codes to label how “safe” a person is. Using a composite of voluntarily surrendered personal data and city municipal data, a three-colour code is generated: green for “safe”, yellow requiring a seven-day quarantine and red for a 14-day quarantine.

In Zhejiang Province alone, more than 50 million people registered for Alipay’s health codes within two weeks of release. According to a New York Times report, the program appears to send a user’s location and identifying code number to a server connected to the police. This could allow the authorities to track people’s movements over time.

The state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) has also launched a platform called Close Contact Detector, which pulls in traffic, rail and flight information directly from the government. According to state media, the platform can accurately pinpoint a passenger’s location on a flight or a train to within three rows of a confirmed or suspected virus carrier.

Different provinces, districts or even malls often require different software, meaning people have to download multiple apps. Data mining is happening on an unprecedented scale, but it’s unclear how it will be used by companies and the state after the pandemic.

Intrusive surveillance has long been a reality for human rights defenders in China. Li Wenzu, wife of recently-released human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, had numerous surveillance cameras installed outside her apartment by the authorities. Last year, during the Belt and Road business forum, government critics and petitioners across the country were prevented from getting train tickets to Beijing as they were blacklisted in the ticketing system. Authorities have also required certain human rights defenders to wear location-tracking wristbands at all times.

I fear the government will use the pandemic as an excuse to normalize and push forward a range of surveillance measures. The rapid adoption of stringent policies and tech tools may well accelerate China’s ability to track citizens’ whereabouts and further limit freedoms.

The Chinese government has spent years developing technologies that facilitate intrusive mass surveillance. During the pandemic, it is using them on a much broader scale in the name of public health and safety. This is repeatedly described as an “extraordinary time” requiring extraordinary measures.

But increased surveillance measures, whether in China or the UK, will be unlawful unless they can meet strict criteria. They must be necessary, proportionate, time-bound and transparent, and they must not do more harm than good. The measures introduced in China do not seem to meet these conditions, and they could be a violation of the right to privacy.

Technology should be deployed to save lives, but China’s human rights record suggests the current climate of unchecked surveillance could well outlast the pandemic. And as other countries follow China’s lead in combating the virus, that danger spreads.

June Ko is Amnesty International's Chinese editor

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