Tech giants in China are deploying a color-coded health rating system to help officials track the millions of people returning to work in the wake of the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak, The New York Times (NYT) reported on Sunday (March 1).
The government of Hangzhou collaborated with Alibaba and Ant Financial to create a smartphone app feature that segments people into three categories — green, yellow or red — based on their medical conditions and travel history. Tencent developed a similar program for the southern city of Shenzhen. The software determines if a person should be quarantined or allowed in public.
The NYT analyzed the software’s code and discovered that the feature appears to share data with law enforcement, which could start a precedent for new types of automated social control that could stay in place after the coronavirus is no longer an active threat.
Chinese residents sign up for the app using services like Alipay, Ant’s wallet app. The system is now being used in 200 cities and will be launched throughout the country, Ant said.
Zhou Jiangyong, Hangzhou’s Communist Party secretary, said the health rating software was “an important practice in Hangzhou’s digitally empowered city management” and supports the further use of similar tools, according to state news media.
People given a green health code are free to be in public and are given a QR code to check in at subways, office buildings, and other densely populated public areas. Staff at checkpoints will scan the code and people’s temperatures before allowing them to enter a space.
“The coronavirus outbreak is proving to be one of those landmarks in the history of the spread of mass surveillance in China,” said Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch.
She added that China has historically used major events — like the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai — to launch surveillance tools that go beyond their original intent.
The virus has killed at least 3,056 people, all but 144 in mainland China. The number of people sick from the coronavirus hit 89,700 on Monday morning (March 2). Two Seattle-area residents were confirmed dead at the same hospital and the number of cases in the U.S. increased to 88 by Sunday (March 1) from 65.
Chinese authorities said the number of new coronavirus deaths in the country is the lowest number since Jan. 28.