Chinese City Considers Permanent Health Tracking System

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The Chinese city of Hangzhou is considering proposals to make the smartphone-based coronavirus health tracking system permanent, expanding it to include factors such as how much sleep citizens are getting, how much alcohol they drink, and how frequently they exercise.

China’s health tracking system uses a smartphone app that became, in effect, mandatory for all citizens to carry. The app generated a QR barcode that can be scanned by various officials to determine if an individual is healthy enough to travel or enter a particular facility. There are some variations in how the app works across China, but most versions of it generate a green, yellow, or red health rating for each citizen.

Use of the health-tracking app is winding down as the Chinese government claims to have the coronavirus under control, but Hangzhou – a city of about ten million that sits about an hour away from Shanghai by train and prides itself on tech innovations, serving as the headquarters for the immense Alibaba corporation – may keep the system online permanently as a means of tracking and controlling the health of every resident.

CNBC explained the proposal on Tuesday, asking some unsettling questions about where the tremendous amount of data needed to micromanage the health of ten million people will come from, how carefully their privacy will be safeguarded, and precisely what will happen to those unfortunate souls with poor health ratings:

In Hangzhou, the government’s proposals involve giving a person a health score. This will be based on various factors including electronic medical records, results of physical examinations and lifestyle choices. In a screenshot of the barcode-based system, a person’s health score can be seen going down because they drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes. Meanwhile, a good amount of sleep plus exercise increases a person’s score. 

It is unclear how the government would collect such information or whether this app will come to fruition. 

The health code that Hangzhou residents are currently using related to the coronavirus is run via Alipay, the mobile payments platform owned by Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial.

When asked about the new app, the company told CNBC it has “not been contacted by any party with respect to this project.” A spokesperson reiterated that protecting the privacy of users is “a strict requirement for all third party service providers on our platform.”

Nervous Hangzhou residents will not be reassured by the example of China’s infamous social credit system, which began as an effort to crack down on crime and terrorism, but quickly evolved into a system that denies “bad citizens” the right to climb aboard a train.

Indeed, Technode noted on Tuesday that the Hangzhou proposals already make the health code system far more complex than the traffic-light ratings employed during the pandemic, giving each citizen a “sliding-scale numerical score” whose calculations will not be entirely transparent to the general population.

“How much you’ve drunk, smoked, exercised and slept on any given day can all affect your points total, boosting or lowering your ranking,” CNN noted, observing that the system will also be able to track the movement of individuals around Hangzhou because the QR code appearing on each citizen’s phone will be constantly scanned at the entrance to buildings and before boarding public transportation.

CNN included a few examples of how the system would work, as proposed by Hangzhou Municipal Health Commission director Sun Yongrong:

The score can be affected by your daily activities: 15,000 steps of daily exercise will increase your score by 5 points, 200 milliliters of baijiu — a sorghum-based Chinese liquor known for its high alcohol content — will lower your score by 1.5 points, five cigarettes will cost you 3 points, and 7.5 hours of sleep will add one point to your score, the demonstration shows.

There might also be a “group health score” for companies and residential committees, Sun said. A demonstration shows the health score for a company can be based on factors such as how much its employees exercise and sleep per day, how many employees have conducted annual health checkups, and how well chronic disease are controlled among its employees.

Sun did not give details on how the data will be collected, whether the app will be compulsory, or how the score will affect people’s daily life and business operations.

According to CNN, Chinese social media users are apprehensive about the Hangzhou proposal, voicing concerns about privacy and the potential for unfair treatment by the system. Some worried that data from the system could be obtained by everyone from marketing operations to potential employers.

“Points will be deducted for smoking, drinking and not sleeping enough, does this mean our lives will be completely monitored?” asked one user, evidently getting the hang of what life will be like under the increasingly aggressive high-tech tyranny that rules his country.

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