China's Virus Tracking Technology Sparks Privacy Concerns
By Joyce Huang June 22, 2020
While battling a new cluster of COVID-19 infections, authorities in Beijing have been quick to make use of geo-spatial information, collected through mobile tracking devices in people's smartphones to identify and isolate potential virus carriers.
The technology, enabled by the device's built-in global positioning system, has helped officials locate hundreds of thousands of people who might have been to the Xinfadi wholesale food market after late May – the possible ground zero of the latest coronavirus outbreak.
As of Sunday, authorities have confirmed a total of 236 new COVID-19 patients and 22 asymptomatic patients, many of whom are related to the market, Beijing's health commission said in a press statement Monday.
Prior to the latest outbreak, China had accumulated more than 83,000 confirmed cases countrywide in the past six months, government statistics showed.
Thanks to the location data, more than 700,000 people at risk of alleged exposure to the market were said to have been notified, given or arranged to be given tests just days after the Xinfadi market was closed on June 13, local media reported.
That shows how aggressive Beijing has been in containing the diseases although it also raises concerns about privacy, says Charles Mok, a lawmaker and tech entrepreneur in Hong Kong.
Some observers have long expressed worries that China's virus tracking practices and apps, including an existent "QR code," may outlast its outbreak.
The health QR code, which is widely used by Chinese citizens with smartphones, has since February doubled as digital entry passes in and out of residential compounds or public places after having integrated one's travel history.
"The problem is also with privacy concerns because the biggest worry is that once this [latest practice of using spatial data] is in place, it is very difficult to take away," Mok told VOA in a phone interview Monday.
As thorough as it can be, Beijing's virus tracking policy in the past week appears to have gone overboard since those who weren't in direct contact with potential virus carriers from the market also got swept up, Mok said.
The lawmaker suspected that the Chinese authorities may be conducting a social experiment to see what they can do with the data.
On Weibo, China's Twitter-like social microblogging site, many residents in Beijing complained that they only passed by the market by car or by public transportation instead of setting foot into the market, but they still received text messages from the city government, which asked them to fill out a digital questionnaire before tests for virus were arranged.
Local media reported on Sunday that the city government in Beijing had completed testing of more than 2.3 million citizens, or around 10% of its population of 21 million.
Many say that they felt they had to comply with the city government's instructions in order to ease their own minds as well.
"Needless to say, we civilians are completely naked in front of the telecom operators," one Weibo user commented, responding to other netizens' complaints about a lack of privacy as a result of the government's expansive virus tracking policy.
Another user wrote, "you've given up right to privacy when you started using the mobile phone. Shall [telecom operators] make illegal use of your privacy [data], they can be prosecuted. However, when personal safety is at stake, it becomes a way to control [the outbreak]," he added.
That comment, Mok said, showed that Chinese people were becoming more and more tolerant of the government's digital measures in stemming the epidemic.
It worries him, he said, because the Chinese government can easily find excuses in the future to extend its tracking policy for political reasons, and keep tabs on political dissidents.
It comes as no surprise that China would find the technology useful in tracking potential virus carriers, as the government has long used technology to impose online censorship or block keywords on the Internet, said a tech professor from Taiwan, who specializes in mining geo-spatial data for commercial use.
Combining the use of facial recognition and geo-spatial data, China has been successful in tracking citizens whose online comments were found to be critical of the government, the professor told VOA on the condition of anonymity given the matter's sensitivity.
He said that many governments, including Taiwan's, are using similar technology to help control the virus. He added some have erected a virtual "electronic fence" to track the whereabouts of those under home quarantine.
But most governments are not as aggressive and invasive as China, which he said has shown little respect for individual's privacy while accessing personal data, he added.
In lieu of regulations protecting personal information in China, telecom operators there also have little power in rejecting the government's demand for personal information or exposing its misuse of private data, especially when the top management of many companies is politically connected, the professor added.
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