While China appears to have the novel coronavirus outbreak under control, this has come at a heavy cost to China's citizens.
Let's start with this video courtesy of the United Kingdom's Channel 4 (the key part starts at the 1 minute mark):
In order to enter an apartment building, public market, office building or take mass transit (among other things), Chinese citizens must use their smartphones to scan a QR code using a mini-app powered by Alibaba's popular payment application Alipay. Users of the mini-app called Alipay Health Code must supply their name, government ID number and telephone number. The health platform asks questions of the user including current health status and whether the individual has travelled to either virus-hit areas or had contact with infected persons. The app then gives people a one-time "health passport", rating the individual as green, yellow or red as well as letting the system know their exact location. The health codes are ranked as follows:
Green – may travel freely/unrestricted movement
Yellow – must be quarantined for one week
Red – must be quarantined for two weeks.
To enter the building or public space, the user must then pass through a manned security checkpoint where only green-ranked individuals are allowed access to the building or public space.
Here is the announcement from mid-February 2020 in Chinese explaining how the system will work:
Here is a translation of the text at the top of the webpage:
"Based on the experience of implementing the health code model in Zhejiang (the home province of Alipay where there was over 90 percent adoption of the mini-app) and other places to help sort and resume production and order, under the guidance of the e-government office of the State Council General Office, Alipay is accelerating the development of a unified national health code for epidemic prevention and control based on the national integrated government service platform System and will be online next week."
Alibaba is not the only company developing a smartphone-based health system. Tencent, a massive Chinese holding company with subsidiaries specializing in internet-related services, artificial technology and other technology, is also developing the Tencent Healthcare Code which it claims is already available in Guangdong, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
Here is a video showing how Alibaba and Tencent developed the health rating systems:
The two companies that developed the health app worked with local governments to create the system which is now in place in over 200 cities across China.
According to the New York Times (which is not entirely trustworthy), they studied the code of the mini-app and found that it sends a person's location, city name and an identifying code number to a server that belongs to government authorities. Every time the QR code is scanned, it has the potential to allow authorities to track someone's movements.
There is no doubt that the efforts made by China's government has controlled the spread of COVID-19 within China. That control has potentially come at a very high cost to Chinese citizens, already among the most surveilled people in the world thanks to the nation's 200 million CCTV surveillance cameras. While the outbreak has yet to take hold in North America, it will be interesting to see if Washington follows the lead of Beijing and partners up with one of North America's tech giants to implement a program that will further reduce what little remains of our privacy all in the name of protecting us from the latest "terror". The COVID-19 pandemic is just the excuse that government needs to track our private lives.
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