WHEN THE covid-19 virus started spreading in China, and the government began locking down the country, Shen Dacheng’s friends called her a prophet. Her short story “Miss Box Man”, published in 2018, is set in a world of virus-induced fear. The rich live in sealed containers which protect them from the pathogen. For the rest, life is a constant series of compulsory blood tests and hosings-down with disinfectant. Those found with the virus are seized. Some are killed on the spot. Sensors are hidden everywhere, looking out for carriers.
China’s non-fictional epidemic has echoes of that dystopia, minus the caskets and the killings. Take Ms Sun, who lives with her son and husband in the eastern city of Hangzhou. The city’s health-check app flagged her as a possible carrier of the virus after she reported a runny nose through its self-assessment form. She had just returned from her native province in the north-west, where she had met people from Hubei, the province at the centre of the outbreak that has infected more than 65,000 people in China and killed about 2,600 others since December.
The red colour of the QR code on Ms Sun’s “Hangzhou Health Code” app indicated that she was supposed to be undergoing 14 days of self-quarantine. Had the code been yellow, it would have meant she was a lower risk and had to isolate herself for seven days. For free passage around the city, people must produce their phones at checkpoints and show they have a green QR code. Pictured is another method of keeping tabs on people: drivers have to scan the code held up by a drone to register for entry into the city, in this case Shenzhen.
Ms Sun’s app did not offer her a chance to explain that she has chronic rhinitis, a common nasal condition. Only after an appeal to the local government and a visit from neighbourhood officials was her red status changed to green, allowing her to move around Hangzhou again.
Much of China’s success so far in containing the virus’s spread outside Hubei has depended on mobilising legions of people to man checkpoints armed with clipboards and thermometer guns, or to go door-to-door making note of sniffles. But as the daily number of newly confirmed cases of covid-19 continues to fall in China, and the government struggles to get the economy going again after more than a month of paralysis, officials will rely more heavily on surveillance technology to prevent a resurgence of the virus. It will enable them to adopt a more tailored approach, allowing most people to resume their normal lives while monitoring those who might be infected.
Smartphones, which are carried by most working-age Chinese, will be powerful tools. They are already used extensively by police to track people’s movements and monitor their online behaviour. Covid-19 offers the government an incentive and an excuse to exploit their capabilities more fully, this time in pursuit of data that could help the clipboard-carriers identify their targets. As other countries worry about a possible pandemic of covid-19, they will watch China to see whether its digital snooping can provide lessons in how to control the virus’s spread.
It is often assumed that the surveillance systems used by China’s security services are highly integrated and offer an abundance of up-to-the-minute intelligence on almost every citizen. In the far-western province of Xinjiang, there may be some truth in this. Data culled from smartphones and ubiquitous facial-recognition cameras are used to identify people there whom the authorities regard as threatening: devout Muslims or those with a fondness for Xinjiang’s non-Han cultures. Such information has helped the government round up more than 1m people and put them in “re-education centres”.
But those efforts involve only a single province. Creating such systems is far harder when it entails data-sharing between provinces, or between provincial and central authorities. Co-operation is undermined by competition for favour in Beijing. The boss of a foreign artificial-intelligence developer in China says that fusing datasets within a single firm is often quick, but not if it involves co-operation between different institutions. “The person in charge is unwilling to take the risk,” he says, and usually reckons that doing nothing is safer than sharing.
Even with the best of technology and the most joined-up of bureaucracies, tracking covid-19 would be difficult. Other diseases that have caused global alarm this century, such as Ebola and SARS, have been easier to monitor because those infected have quickly shown symptoms, unlike those with the covid-19 virus.
A “close-contact” app being developed with much fanfare by a state-owned firm, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, therefore should be viewed with scepticism. (The company is also responsible for much of the surveillance technology deployed in Xinjiang.) The app is supposed to provide officials with data drawn from the National Health Commission, the Ministry of Transport, China Railway and the Civil Aviation Administration of China to track citizens’ travel, health and contacts with infected people. But it is not clear how work on this is proceeding, if it is at all.
For now, China’s digital monitoring methods for covid-19 are a hodgepodge of disjointed efforts by city and provincial governments, as well as the technology giants Alibaba and Tencent. Witness the self-assessment system that ensnared Ms Sun. It is being rolled out by Ant Financial, an Alibaba affiliate that runs Alipay, a ubiquitous payment app. Two hundred cities are now using it, says Alibaba, after its trial in Hangzhou. Ant Financial eventually plans to offer it nationwide.
A representative of Ant Financial says the app, which is bundled with Alipay, is merely a conduit for data compiled by the government. Tencent’s WeChat, a social-media platform, offers a similar app using data from the same source. It has been introduced in Tencent’s home town, Shenzhen. Such non-state firms may be best-equipped to harness data to good effect in the battle against the virus. Unlike government bodies, they have a cohesive nation-wide view of their customers and ready access to intimate details about them.
Both Alipay and WeChat harvest their users’ location data. Through WeChat, Tencent knows who its users talk to. WeChat Pay and Alipay know who receives their users’ money. Both Tencent and Ant Financial know what travel tickets their users have bought through the companies’ respective apps. They have better real-time awareness of what Chinese people are doing and discussing than the government itself.
People in China, as well as in democracies, worry about how tech companies use the data they garner from their customers. But if covid-19 becomes a pandemic, they may well become more inclined to forgive a more nosy use of personal data if doing so helps defeat the virus. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Code red”