A new system uses software to dictate quarantines — and appears to send personal data to police, in a troubling precedent for automated social control.
HANGZHOU, China — As China encourages people to return to work despite the coronavirus outbreak, it has begun a bold mass experiment in using data to regulate citizens’ lives — by requiring them to use software on their smartphones that dictates whether they should be quarantined or allowed into subways, malls and other public spaces.
But a New York Times analysis of the software’s code found that the system does more than decide in real time whether someone poses a contagion risk. It also appears to share information with the police, setting a template for new forms of automated social control that could persist long after the epidemic subsides.
The Alipay Health Code, as China’s official news media has called the system, was first introduced in the eastern city of Hangzhou — a project by the local government with the help of Ant Financial, a sister company of the e-commerce giant Alibaba.
People in China sign up through Ant’s popular wallet app, Alipay, and are assigned a color code — green, yellow or red — that indicates their health status. The system is already in use in 200 cities and is being rolled out nationwide, Ant says.
Neither the company nor Chinese officials have explained in detail how the system classifies people. That has caused fear and bewilderment among those who are ordered to isolate themselves and have no idea why.
Image People scanning a QR code on their phones while volunteers check their temperatures before entering a market in Kunming, in China’s southern Yunnan Province.
People scanning a QR code on their phones while volunteers check their temperatures before entering a market in Kunming, in China’s southern Yunnan Province.Credit…Wong Campion/Reuters
The sharing of personal data with the authorities further erodes the thin line separating China’s tech titans from the Communist Party government.
The Times analysis found that as soon as a user grants the software access to personal data, a piece of the program labeled “report Info And Location To Police” sends the person’s location, city name and an identifying code number to a server. The software does not make clear to users its connection to the police. But according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency and an official police social media account, law enforcement authorities were a crucial partner in the system’s development.
While Chinese internet companies often share data with the government, the process is rarely so direct. In the United States, it would be akin to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using apps from Amazon and Facebook to track the coronavirus, then quietly sharing user information with the local sheriff’s office.
Zhou Jiangyong, Hangzhou’s Communist Party secretary, recently called the health code system “an important practice in Hangzhou’s digitally empowered city management” and said the city should look to expand the use of such tools, according to state news media.
Such surveillance creep would have historical precedent, said Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch. China has a record of using major events, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, to introduce new monitoring tools that outlast their original purpose, Ms. Wang said.
“The coronavirus outbreak is proving to be one of those landmarks in the history of the spread of mass surveillance in China,” she said.