In China contact tracing apps already do more than just trace contacts — they decide whether you can go to restaurants and travel around.
It was one of the first moral issues that emerged with the ongoing pandemic: how do you balance tracking the spread of the virus with risking people’s privacy? In China, the decision is clear: the first is prioritized, with few concerns regarding surveillance.
To enter malls, parks, restaurants, and some public transit, people in some parts of China must show their status on an app. If it’s green, you can go in with no problems. If it’s yellow, you might be denied access and forced to self-quarantine — and if it’s red, you’re headed for a two-week quarantine at a hotel. In a sense, the app plays a decisive role regarding where you can go and what you can do.
Health and privacy
For the users, these apps work in pretty much the same way: you download it, set up an account, a telephone number, and sometimes a photo. The app then tracks your interactions with other people and gives alerts and an overall risk score.
But in the backend, apps can work quite differently.
An app by the State Council, China’s cabinet, uses GPS locations shared by telecommunications companies — an approach which is not permissible in Western democracies. Furthermore, the app gives authorities the capacity to look at anyone’s travels in the past 14 days, with the police, health officials, and even neighborhood committees having access to private information. Several other apps are used in China, and not all use GPS for tracking, but all have privacy policies that would be considered unacceptable in most places.
While Europe has prioritized privacy for contact tracing apps (and it’s likely that the US will follow a similar path), China has embraced the invasiveness of these apps as a small price to pay for public health.
Beijing’s city government insists that the apps “are only used in the fight against the epidemic” and have access to “just” surnames and the last two digits of ID numbers.
“There is a difference between Chinese and Western culture,” said Cui Xiaohui, a professor at the big data analysis and AI research centre at the University of Wuhan—the city where the virus first emerged late last year.
“Most Chinese people are ready to sacrifice a little bit of their private life if it is really for their health,” Cui said.
The controversial use of surveillance technology has mushroomed across China, where the government was already keeping a close eye on the population before the pandemic. By using a combination camera surveillance and collecting social data, the Chinese government is developing a social credit system that rates the trustworthiness of its citizens — so implementing the COVID-19 surveillance app is not a big shift.
Unlike other countries, China also isn’t encumbered by privacy legislation. While the country did pass a cybersecurity law in 2017, that only partially covers abuses by companies, and does not prevent authorities from accessing personal data online.
“China doesn’t have specific laws or regulations yet on the protection of personal data,” said Zhou Lina, a professor specialising in data protection at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.
Prioritizing public health over privacy is, while debatable, understandable at the very least. But neither the app developers nor Chinese officials have explained in detail how the system classifies people. There are also concerning glitches. For instance, the health code of many foreigners in China inexplicably turned yellow one day in April, suggesting that some undisclosed classification may also be in place. Also, a New York Ttimes software analysis found that the system does more than just decide who poses a contagion risk: it is essentially setting a template for new forms of automated social control.
Addressing the pandemic is, of course, the utmost priority. But if China’s case is any indication, totalitarian governments will try to use the opportunity to deploy some form of mass surveillance.
In the end, every society must choose the path it wants to take and where it wants to position itself on the surveillance spectrum — a decision that could influence how we treat privacy for many years to come.