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Imagine your daily routine being entirely dependent on a smart phone app. Leaving your home, taking the subway, going to work, entering cafes, restaurants and shopping malls — each move, dictated by the color shown on your screen. Green: you're free to proceed. Amber or Red: you're barred from entry.

This has been the reality for hundreds of millions of people in China since midway through the coronavirus crisis — and it could yet stay that way for the foreseeable future, as the country battles to recover from it.

Relying on mobile technology and big data, the Chinese government has used a color-based "health code" system to control people's movements and curb the spread of the coronavirus. The automatically generated quick response codes, commonly abbreviated to QR codes, are assigned to citizens as an indicator of their health status.

Although authorities have yet to make the health codes compulsory, in many cities, citizens without the app wouldn't be able to leave their residential compounds or enter most public places.

Three months on, with the virus largely contained and lockdown measures gradually lifted across most of China, the small square barcodes have remained in place and are still ruling people's lives.

Following China's lead, other governments have also turned to similar technology to battle the virus. Singapore last month launched a contact-tracing smartphone app, which would allow authorities to identify people who have been exposed to Covid-19 patients. The Japanese government is considering the adoption of a similar app. Moscow has also introduced a QR code system to track movements and enforce its coronavirus lockdown.

“Technology is now playing a critical role in containing the pandemic,” Xian-Sheng Hua, a health AI expert at Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, told CNN Business.

“To stop the spread of the virus, contact tracing is an essential step and that is why similar initiatives are being adopted around the world,” added Xian-Sheng.

How it works?

Chinese government has asked for help from the country’s two internet giants – Ali Baba ((BABA) and Tencent ((TCEHY) – host health code systems on their popular smartphone apps.

Alibaba’s mobile payment app, Alipay, and Tencent’s messaging app, Wechat, are both ubiquitous in China, each used by hundreds of millions of people. Placing health codes on these platforms means easy access for many.

Hangzhou, a coastal city in the eastern Zhejiang province where Alibaba is based, was among the first cities to use health codes to decide which citizens should go to quarantine. The system was launched on February 11 by Alipay.

To obtain a health code, citizens must fill in their personal information, including their name, national identity number or passport number and telephone number on a registration page. They are then asked to report their travel history and whether they have contacted any Covid-19 patients who have been confirmed or suspected in the past 14 days. They must also check the boxes for any possible symptoms: fever, fatigue, dry cough, stuffy nose, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea.

After the information is verified by authorities, each user will be assigned a QR code in red, amber or green.

Users with a red code must go into government quarantine or auto-quarantine for 14 days, users with an orange code will be quarantined for seven days, while users with a green code can move freely in the city, according to a statement issued by the authorities in Hangzhou.

The health codes can also be used to track the movement of people in public spaces, as residents have their QR codes scanned when they enter public places. Once a confirmed case is diagnosed, authorities are able to quickly go back to the patient’s whereabouts and identify the people who have been in contact with that person.

A person familiar with the development of health codes on Alipay told CNN Business that the system was developed and operated by government agencies, and Alipay only provides the platform and technical assistance.

Meanwhile, Tencent has also developed a similar health QR code system on Wechat, first introduced in early February in the southern city of Shenzhen, where Tencent is based.

How much is it used?

Less than a week after its launch, Alipay health codes have been deployed in more than 100 cities across the country, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

On February 15, the State Council’s e-government office instructed Alipay to speed up the development of a health QR code that will be rolled out across the country, Xinhua said.

“A” sky net “of digital epidemic prevention is unfolding on a large scale at the speed of China,” said the Xinhua report.

By the end of February, more than 200 cities had adopted these QR codes, according to Alipay.

Tencent’s health code system had also expanded to more than 300 cities in the past month, according to the state-run Science and Technology Daily.

On March 1, Beijing launched its version of the tricolor QR code, accessible via Alipay and Wechat. In addition to providing their name and identification number, users must also register with facial recognition to obtain their color code.

Health codes have also played a central role in the gradual lifting of travel restrictions in Hubei province, where around 60 million people have had their travel restricted due to blockades in late January.

On March 10, the province released its health codes for residents wishing to travel to the province.

The colors are assigned according to the provincial epidemic control database: people diagnosed as confirmed, suspect or asymptomatic cases, or people with fever will receive the red color code; their close contacts will receive the yellow code; and people without any records in the database will be given the green code – which means they are healthy and safe to travel.

The colors of the QR codes determine the freedom of movement of people: green code holders are allowed to travel within the province, orange code holders are not allowed to travel and red code holders will be treated and quarantined.

All residents and visitors leaving Hubei and Wuhan must have a green QR code on their phone.

What are the problems?

As with all technology products, the health app is not perfect – it can make mistakes and assign users the wrong color code, and force the wrong people into quarantine.

In Hangzhou, the city where Alipay’s health codes were first introduced, some residents have complained on social media that they received the red code for the wrong reason – such as checking “stuffy noses” or “fatigue” on the registration page, although they are also common cold and flu symptoms.

A few days after its launch, the authorities in Hangzhou said in a statement that the mayor’s hotline had received too many calls from people who had questions about their codes, and had therefore set up an online application for people asking a review of their assigned codes.

As the Chinese resume travel under the lifting of the lockdowns, another problem has arisen: not all cities and provinces recognize each other’s health codes.

Although the QR codes are all the same color and developed by the same companies, they are based on different Covid-19 databases set up by local authorities.

Because databases are not shared among local governments, and because different governments may have different standards for assigning colors, some have been reluctant to recognize health codes from other places, according to the legal daily Legal State.

A Hubei resident by the name of Yuan, who returned to work in Guizhou Province in late March after the isolation was lifted, told the Legal Daily that he still needs 14 days of quarantine in Guizhou, even if he had a Hubei green health code. after a quarantine of 14 days. Guizhou does not recognize Hubei health codes, the newspaper said.

To solve this problem, the central government launched a “national code for the prevention of epidemics”. He also downloaded a national database of confirmed and suspected Covid-19 cases and their close contacts to a centralized platform, in the hope that local governments could recognize each other’s health codes through data sharing, according to Mao Qunan, an official with the National Health Commission.

"We've realized the mutual recognition and sharing of basic data," Mao told a presser on March 21.

There are also concerns about confidentiality. Health codes are based on thousands of data that authorities have collected from individuals – including their personal information, location, travel history, recent contacts and state of health.

“All that matters to me is whether our personal information will be disclosed and whether our information security can be guaranteed,” said Han Dongyan, a user of Weibo health codes.

Zhu Wei, a legal expert at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law, defended health codes in an interview with the Guangming Daily. He said health codes confirmed China’s Internet security law because users were aware of the collection of their data and because the government was involved in the process.

Jason Lau, privacy expert and professor at the Baptist University of Hong Kong, said Chinese authorities must ensure that health codes adhere to typical data privacy principles. For example, the data collected should be “proportionate to the objective to be achieved”.

He also raised the question of whether the codes – and any personal information collected – will remain there even after the pandemic.

“How can we determine the end of the pandemic? For example, the government and the companies that collect this data – who will be the one who will say,” OK, the pandemic is over, let’s delete the data, let’s not store it anymore personal data, “said Lau.

Liu Yuewen, a big data expert working for the police in southern Yunnan Province, said at a press conference in February that health code data would be destroyed when efforts to control the epidemic took place. end.

"No one will be able to see any data without the permission of the epidemic prevention and control headquarters," he said, the state-backed Beijing News reported at the time.

Some cities have already started to remove health codes from parts of residents’ lives.

In Hangzhou, where QR codes were first deployed, the government announced on March 21 that residents were no longer required to show their health codes in public places, such as subway stations, shopping malls shopping and hotels.

But in many other places, like Beijing and Shanghai, the small square barcodes still decide where people can and cannot go in their daily lives.


Autor(en)/Author(s): Nectar Gan and David Culver

Quelle/Source: CNN Business, 16.04.2020

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