When the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic hit its peak, the Chinese government was quick to make use of smartphones to track citizens’ movements and isolate those who might be infected. Now, privacy experts are warning that these surveillance measures may stay in place once the pandemic has ended. One communist party official claims that Chinese people want to be surveilled, saying the app is “loved so much that you cannot bear to part with it.”
The New York Times reports that when the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic was in full force in China, the government was quick to use citizens’ cell phones to identify and isolate people who could potentially be spreading the virus. Now, China claims that the virus is largely under control in the country, yet the government’s monitoring apps are slowly moving towards being a permanent part of Chinese peoples’ lives.
The tracking software has reportedly been collecting information such as location data on people in hundreds of cities across China, but no limits have been set by authorities on how that data can be used. Zhou Jiangyong, the Communist Party secretary of the eastern tech hub of Hangzhou, has stated that the app should be an “intimate health guardian” for residents that is used often and “loved so much that you cannot bear to part with it.”
Li Sihui, a researcher at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, wrote in a recent commentary: “Epidemic prevention and control needs the support of big data technology, but this does not mean agencies and individuals can randomly collect citizens’ information by borrowing the name of prevention and control.”
Wang Xin, a novelist with 2.5 million followers on the Chinese social platform Weibo, wrote: “Doesn’t this brazenly violate privacy to surveil and discriminate against unhealthy people?” Another author, Shen Jiake, wrote: “I know that in this age of big data, it’s so easy for those who control data to check and use personal information in a matter of minutes,” but Jiake added that Hangzhou’s plan “crosses a line.”
Other Chinese cities are no working on ways to continue using the apps, Shanghai reportedly wants to transform the app into a digital assistant for accessing local services of all kinds. The city of Xining uses the software to unlock coupons to local stores as a way to boost the economy.
Authorities in Hangzhou began linking the city’s app to citizens’ medical records in April, enabling residents to schedule hospital visits via the app. A document from eh city government also outlines situations in which people’s codes could be scanned to receive a readout of their overall health.
One user on the Chinese social media app Weibo commented: “Medical history and health checkup reports are personal privacy, why should they be included in health codes to show others?” They added: “Points will be deducted for smoking, drinking and not sleeping enough, does this mean our lives will be completely monitored?”
Lucas Nolan is a reporter for Breitbart News covering issues of free speech and online censorship. Follow him on Twitter @LucasNolan or contact via secure email at the address firstname.lastname@example.org