China May Repurpose Coronavirus Tracking Apps for Widespread Surveillance

Experts worry that China will use its coronavirus tracking apps to expand its widespread surveillance of citizens, The New York Times reports.

China quickly rolled out applications that helped identify and isolate people infected with the coronavirus but, with the outbreak mostly contained, the apps are “tiptoeing toward becoming a permanent fixture of everyday life, one with potential to be used in troubling and invasive ways,” The Times reports.

The apps have collected personal information and location data on the population of hundreds of cities across the country and officials have set few restrictions on how the data can be used.

People who use the apps must enter their info, recent travel activities, and their health status. The app then assigns people a color -- red, orange, or green -- and authorities check the color of someone’s code each time they enter subways, offices, and shopping centers.

Officials already floating ideas:

One Communist Party official urged earlier this month that the city of Hangzhou should continue to use the app as an “intimate health guardian” for residents, arguing it would be “loved so much that you cannot bear to part with it.”

The city is considering ranking citizens with a “personal health index,” with a scale based on how much sleep they get, how many steps they take per day, and how much they drink and smoke.

Officials have also floated plans to aggregate the data collected during the pandemic.

Experts alarmed:

“Epidemic prevention and control needs the support of big data technology, but this does not mean agencies and individuals can randomly collect citizens’ information by borrowing the name of prevention and control,” warned Li Sihui, a researcher at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan.

“Doesn’t this brazenly violate privacy to surveil and discriminate against unhealthy people?” questioned author Wang Xin.

“I know that in this age of big data, it’s so easy for those who control data to check and use personal information in a matter of minutes,” said author Shen Jiake, adding the Hangzhou plan “crosses a line.”


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