China’s ‘Big Brother’ against covid threatens to stay forever

China's 'Big Brother' against covid threatens to stay forever

Thorough monitoring of coronavirus cases has been one of the strengths of China’s management of the epidemic. And, without a doubt, technology has been a determining facilitator: a couple of weeks after the Wuhan containment decree, the epicentre of the viral earthquake that has turned the world upside down, the Asian giant had already developed a mobile application to track movements of all citizens and determine if they were at risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2.

Nested in the Alipay or WeChat ‘super applications’, the program accesses all user data – geo-location, transport and police bases … and generates a QR code on the screen that comes in the colours of a traffic light: green – free route, yellow – the risk of contagion and red – absolute quarantine. Its use is mandatory for anyone who wants to leave home because it was required during the epidemic to access all kinds of places and services.

Furthermore, although establishments such as shopping malls or restaurants no longer ask for it, the green code is still an essential requirement to move around the country, and many official buildings continue to require it to allow access despite the fact that new and very sporadic infections are hardly detected anymore. For this reason, many of those who initially applauded the implementation of this application to prevent the spread of the coronavirus now fear that the citizen control system ends up being part of the new normal.

And the eastern city of Hangzhou has given good reasons to believe that this may be the case because the Health Commission of this megalopolis that houses the Alibaba headquarters has proposed to maintain it and even increase its functions to turn it into a system that scores users is based on your habits and classify them according to how healthy they are. “The goal is to create a platform that receives data from different applications to offer a single health code,” announced the commission’s secretary, Sun Yongrong, who hopes to have the system ready by next month. He did not clarify whether it will be mandatory and only detailed that, among the data that will be collected, some will be related to the lifestyle and clinical history of citizens.

Pedometer mobile

However, the charts used by the commission to explain how the system works give some more clues. For example, it seems that the data collected by the pedometer of the mobile phone or a bracelet for exercise monitoring will be taken into account because the application stipulates that whoever walks 15,000 steps a day will get five extra points. It is also noted that those who sleep 7.5 hours will receive one more point. At the opposite extreme, vices such as smoking and drinking alcohol will penalize strongly: 200 millilitres of liquor will subtract 1.5 points, and five cigarettes, three.

Anyone who sleeps 7.5 hours or walks 15,000 steps will add points. Liquor or tobacco will subtract

Logically, the first question asked by many of the Internet users who have responded to the proposal outraged is how the Government intends to determine how much each user smokes or drinks. Or how much sleep. “This is a bad joke. Will they force you to wear a bracelet at night? Will they collect data on the purchase of tobacco and alcohol when we pay ‘online’? ” Asks a Weibo user, the Chinese Twitter, where 86.5% of those who participated in a survey reject the system.

At the moment, there is no answer. But the Health Commission is convinced that its application will promote healthier lifestyles. In part, because it will show the user’s position in the ‘ranking’ of Hangzhou’s 13.6 million residents, and because he will be incentivized to improve his score as if it were a game. “We hope that people like it and adopt it as a tool to improve their health,” added Sun, who also reported that the application will serve to make an appointment with the doctor, register in a hospital or contact Emergencies.

But the authorities have also not responded to another big question that many demand to clear as soon as possible: what will the score be used for? The main concern is whether it can be decisive in key issues of daily life, such as job search or access to financial products or insurance. “Chinese citizens, who until now have had no qualms about providing all their data in exchange for comfort in ‘online’ services, are beginning to worry about the use that both the Government and large corporations can make of this data” says an engineer employed by a Chinese tech giant who prefers to remain anonymous. “Many are pending these days of the new privacy legislation, but in China, it does not matter what is approved in the new Civil Code because everything is subject to what the Communist Party requires,” he says.

Business version

As if that were not enough, Hangzhou has also announced that the application will have a business version. It will also score them based on the behaviour of the individuals that compose it. And, once again, the only clue to see how it will work is the graphic example given by the Health Commission: if the average number of steps employees take per day is only 2,500, the score will be reduced by 2.5 points; If your daily sleep average is less than five hours, you will receive 1.5 points less. In addition to points, the corporate version will show a star rating and will take into account variables such as the percentage of employees who have passed the annual health check-up.

We are no longer human but a set of data,” criticizes an Internet user. “You have ‘Black Mirror’, we have a green code,” says another with irony. “I suggest that Hangzhou develop an application called ‘political honesty’ that shows the assets of officials and their families,” adds one more in this small representation of the different attitudes with which the project has been received, ranging from sarcastic humor to resignation.

According to ‘The Paper‘, only three of 14 provinces that have established the Health Code have clarified what data they collect, showing the widespread opacity in China, and in April it was learned that the personal data of 6,000 patients from a Jiaozhou hospital had exposed, reflecting the danger posed by these systems. “It seems good to me that all the tools at our disposal are used to combat the epidemic and protect the population. But the measures that are dictated must be temporary and not a carte blanche so that the Government does what it wants later,” says a young woman from Shanghai named Bai. “I do not want to give my data, but in China, I have no alternative,” she laments.