China’s code system: How the corona crisis led to more surveillance

Beijing 27-year-old Liu, who only wants to be mentioned in the newspaper by his last name, looks up from his smartphone. In the distance, he sees the bus he is waiting for. He is supposed to take him to his job at an internet company in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou.

Liu lowers his eyes again, taps the Alipay payment service app on his smartphone and activates the “Hangzhou Health Code” mini software. He makes sure that the service is running. Then he joins a long line. Anyone who wants to ride on the bus must show the driver their personal code. Green means no problem, while yellow and red indicate that the person is not allowed to ride. Liu shows the driver his prepared code. He is green and can get in.

Hangzhou was one of the first cities to use the new program called “Health Code”. To use the service, users must enter their health status in addition to their name, identification number and home address and inform them of where they have been in the past two weeks. The software also accesses users’ location data.

The program, the code, has become a de facto obligation for Chinese citizens. Depending on the city, it serves as an admission ticket for restaurants, local transport and supermarkets. Many employers oblige their employees to activate the service and show the code before entering the office or workshop. According to Fintech Ant Financial, which Alipay belongs to, around 200 cities in China are now using the software.

China is currently trying to do the balancing act: On the one hand, the government wants to further contain the now significantly lower number of newly infected people. On the other hand, the companies should resume their work – and return to everyday life in the second-largest economy in the world, hard hit by the coronavirus. The health codes are intended to help. However, critics fear that the government will take advantage of the situation to further increase surveillance of Chinese citizens.

The code and other tools used to collect data have become an integral part of the daily lives of millions of Chinese. For Liu too. Before he gets to his workplace, a security guard checks his body temperature at the entrance to the office building. Then Liu shows him the paper ID that his company has given him. Finally, he holds up his green code to the security guard. The supermarket where he shops, the restaurant where he eats lunch, and the security guards at the entrance to his housing estate also want to see the code.

“Most people have adapted to the new standard,” observes Liu. Some, mostly older people, would sometimes not show their code when getting on the bus. The driver then reminds them to show it or to apply in case of doubt.

Most cities in China use software based on the health code system developed in Hangzhou. The service can usually be used in at least three ways: through the Alipay payment service app, the WeChat messenger service, the Ding Talk communication platform or the city government’s own website.

Other cities, such as China’s capital Beijing or the east Chinese metropolis of Shanghai, have developed their own systems. Most municipalities do not accept the code from another city. However, there are plans to make the methods compatible with one another.

In an interview with the (German Economic Newspaper) Handelsblatt, Ant Financial distances itself from the service. It was developed by the government. Alipay “only provided technical support”, for example, by making the service accessible via the Alipay platform.

The system is solely offered and controlled by the government, Alipay has no access to the data that is collected, the company emphasizes. The express distancing has a reason: Alipay wants to grow in Europe, negative headlines in connection with data protection would damage the image of the app.

It is unclear exactly which data the code services collect and where the information is passed on. To be able to use the service, the user must agree that their location data will be determined and passed on to the local authority for epidemic prevention and control. This state agency knows at all times where the user of the service is and who he is meeting. The option of leaving your smartphone at home to avoid tracking no longer exists – the code is now necessary for everyday life.

The responsible authorities in Hangzhou City declined to answer a questionnaire from the Handelsblatt. One question was where, in addition to the local epidemic prevention and control bodies, users’ data would be forwarded. An investigation by the New York Times in early March suggested that the location data was also shared with the police.

Work on the state data pool

Mareike Ohlberg from China think tank Merics in Berlin believes that the apps are not a new escalation level in the surveillance of citizens in China primarily because of the type of data collected. The opportunities to track a person’s location had previously existed.

However, she sees another danger: “Programs such as the health code apps, to which several government agencies have access, are increasing the trend in China to collect data more systematically and to make it available to all government institutions,” says Ohlberg. So far, there is no one central location where all the data is located that everyone can access. “The Chinese government is working on this, however, and tracking tools such as the health code programs can help to further develop the system in this direction.”

Public debates about data protection are very rare in China. Even in the case of the health codes, there is hardly any visible criticism. This does not mean that protecting Chinese citizens’ privacy is unimportant per se. For example, a well-known professor from Beijing University posted a blog entry in early March on the issue of data protection during the pandemic.

However, Liu is one of many Chinese who have no privacy concerns. He sees it as an advantage that the code system tracks the movements of the citizens. “The combination with our own health information currently makes it the most effective way to control the epidemic,” he says.

Xu Yiao, a Shanghai business consultant, also has no concerns about his data. He estimates that he uses Suishenma, the Shanghai version of the health code, about four times a day. He has to show the code, which also indicates green for him when entering the subway and at his workplace.

Xu accesses the service via the WeChat messenger app. To do this, he has to scan his face every week with facial recognition software. “I don’t know who developed the program and where my data is stored,” he says. He found “Suishenma” comfortable and secure.

Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch criticized the amount of data collection as disproportionate. They fear that situations such as the corona crisis could be used to further expand such data collections. “The reason for the data collection gives this form of surveillance a new legitimacy because it serves a higher goal: health,” explains Merics expert Ohlberg. “The danger is that the detailed surveillance of Chinese citizens will continue to be normalized in this way, not only within China but also vis-à-vis abroad.”

In fact, local governments have already expressed the following: “In the future, further data and application services will gradually be introduced to become the personal identification and service assistants of the Shanghai people,” says one response from the Shanghai City Administration’s public relations office Citizen request for the “Suishenma” program in early March.

The Hangzhou City Committee’s public relations department declined to comment on Handelsblatt’s request to maintain the system after the crisis. A central Beijing information centre said on appeal that there was as yet no information that the code programs would continue to be used after the pandemic. The decision is still pending.

Human rights organizations cite past experiences according to which there has often been no return from a level of surveillance once it has been established. In China during the Olympic Games in 2008, supervision of public spaces by video cameras was significantly strengthened. When the major event ended, the level of surveillance remained. China is currently the country with the most surveillance cameras.

The system seems prone to errors

It is between 200 million and 626 million cameras are in use. According to a Comparitech survey, there are 168 surveillance cameras per 1000 inhabitants in the metropolis of Chongqing, 114 cameras in Shanghai and 40 cameras in Beijing. For comparison: there are eleven in Berlin and three in Paris.

In addition to the enormous amount of data the code service collects, there is another topic. ‘The determination of the code seems to be prone to errors’. For example, users report their code turned red, and they had to be quarantined because they were in contact with people who had the virus. But that was not the case.

Wang Hao from Beijing, who does not want to read his real name in the newspaper because he fears negative consequences at his workplace at a state-owned company, reports in a conversation about problems with “Jingxinxiangzhu” (read: Dschingchinchiangdschu), the Beijing version of Health Code service.

In late February, Wang took the train back to Beijing from his home in northern China. A train attendant instructed him to register with “Jingxinxiangzhu”. After registering with his name, home address and ID number and providing information about his state of health. He continued to his apartment in central Beijing and started his 14-day quarantine.

Then came the day when the two weeks were over. Wang was looking forward to doing sports in a nearby park again. When he checked “Jingxinxiangzhu” in the morning, his code was not green but yellow, which means that he should remain in quarantine.

Wang was irritated. He wrote in the neighbourhood chat room of his apartment building and asked for help. When no one answered, he cleared his anger on the Weibo social network. “I was probably disappointed that I still wasn’t allowed to leave the apartment after two weeks,” said Wang. Two hours later, his code was green. He did not know why he was changed.

This article was originally published on Handelsblatt by Dana Heide

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