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China’s Health Code App: One More Way to Track Citizens


For the Chinese Communist Party, SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus) has provided an opportunity to expand its massive surveillance system.

The current extensive network of facial recognition cameras has left some gaps. People could avoid recognition, for example, by wearing a face covering to curb the spread of a respiratory illness. Now, China is looking to fill those gaps by keeping the Alipay Health Code app, launched at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a mainstay for its citizens:

Compared to omnipresent facial recognition software and other surveillance systems in China, the health code mechanism covers more people and collects a broader range of personal information. The state can also impose stricter control as people now have to use health codes going to work, getting into a taxi, seeing a doctor, shopping, or doing many other daily activities.

Lin Yijiang, “China’s Health Codes Increase Population Surveillance” at Bitter Winter (June 7, 2020)

While the Chinese government may have botched its response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan in November (or perhaps as early as August), it was quick to censor and surveil citizens in an effort to control the spread of information about the virus. It was able to enforce a strict lockdown of several locations in Southeast China via the massive surveillance system:

Despite the hi-tech ambitions of the system, it is heavily dependent on a lot of people watching footage on screens.

Known as “grid members”, they sit in monitoring rooms or squint over smart-phone feeds from the networks of cameras.

“This type of surveillance is far more human driven than it is tech driven, said James Leibold, associate Professor at Australia’s La Trobe University, who researched similar systems in China’s far-west Xinjiang.

Cate Cadell, “China’s Coronavirus Surveillance Campaign Offers Glimpse into Surveillance System” at Reuters (May 26, 2020)

In an effort to track people with coronavirus, in February, Chinese banking app Alipay launched a health code app (Alipay Health Code) in Hangzhou, a tech hub in the Zhejiang province, as a way to track people potentially infected with COVID-19.

Although the app is ostensibly voluntary, at the height of the pandemic, people in all parts of China were strongly encouraged to download it. Residents of some provinces needed it to go to the grocery store or move around the city, even after their area had no more coronavirus cases. In Hangzhou, government officials went door to door to check if everyone in a particular household had the app.

The app tracks users’ movements using their cell phone GPS. It also prompts users to input health data, such as symptoms and temperature. Once the information is processed through an algorithm, the risk of COVID-19 is indicated by a green, yellow, or red light QR code. That color determines whether the user is allowed to leave home or not.

A person is not at risk of having COVID-19 gets a green light and can go places. A yellow light means a moderate risk, and the person must quarantine for seven days. A red light means a probable case of COVID-19, requiring quarantine for fourteen days. The algorithm’s parameters for deciding on quarantine are not immediately clear but the health data goes directly to the police.

The algorithm has hit a few snags. One woman reported congestion, resulting in her status changing to yellow. She contested her status on account that she has chronic rhinitis. Her status was eventually changed, but while her health code was yellow, she could not go to the grocery store or public areas. Most locations in Hangzhou require a bar code scan before one can enter. Additionally, to rent a car or hotel room requires a bar code scan. One man, who had committed a crime twenty-four years ago turned himself in because he was unable to do anything without registering with the app.

Keeping the surveillance after the pandemic is over

Now that the peak of the pandemic has largely subsided in China, the government is not planning to remove the Health Code app but instead to expand its use:

Months later, China’s official statistics suggest that the worst of the epidemic has passed there, but the government’s monitoring apps are hardly fading into obsolescence. Instead, they are tiptoeing toward becoming a permanent fixture of everyday life, one with potential to be used in troubling and invasive ways.

Raymond Zhong, “China’s Virus Apps May Outlast the Outbreak, Stirring Privacy Fears” at New York Times (May 26, 2020)

Many countries have launched surveillance apps that track GPS data specifically for contact tracing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their citizens are rightly concerned about how that data is being used and whether or not authorities will continue to collect data even after the pandemic has subsided. That concern has prompted rights organizations to sign a Joint Civil Society Statement on states’ use of digital surveillance technology, admonishing states to use tracking technology in ways that protects people’s rights. The eight conditions outlined in the statement call for boundaries and transparency in how a person’s data is being used.

China, however, ignores any of the suggested constraints on states’ use of surveillance technology and seems to be using the pandemic as an excuse to expand its control over dissidents and micromanage people’s daily lives. For example, authorities have reportedly used the health code app, with its opaque algorithm, to keep certain people in “quarantine.” Bitter Winter, a magazine that reports on religious persecution in China, has reported the case of a woman who belonged to the Church of Almighty God, who was forced to quarantine at a local hotel when she applied for a health code. She had previously been arrested for her religious beliefs. Her beliefs were considered a basis for for her to be searched and a blood sample taken. For unknown reasons, her status changed to red.

Officials in Hangzhou now talk of wanting to give people a “personal health index” score based on things like sleeping and drinking habits, and how many steps they take in a day. In April, the app included a feature that linked users to their electronic medical records. The user could then schedule doctor appointments and other health appointments. Shanghai, reportedly, wants people to use their Health Code app as a digital assistant for things beyond healthcare such as finding stores or applying for coupons.

In what seems to be a page from a fictional dystopia, the idea of the Health Code may be expanded to evaluate the “health” of Chinese Communist Party members. An “Honesty Health Code” system has been implemented in some locations:

The code represents party members’ degree of uprightness and diligence in carrying out party work. It’s about whether your party spirit is healthy, not whether your body is healthy,” said Xu Yicou, the party secretary of the village of Shitangxu.

Raymond Zhong, “China’s Virus Apps May Outlast the Outbreak, Stirring Privacy Fears” at New York Times (May 26, 2020)

As with the cell phone app, the Party member is given a red, yellow, or green status but that status is determined by other Party members.

The CCP has a history of using crises, such as terrorist attacks as an excuse to expand its control over the entire population. The current pandemic has given it the opportunity to claim that it is all being done in the name of public health.

Further reading from Heather Zeiger on China and the COVID-19 crisis:

COVID-19: Getting to the bottom of what happened in China. China knowingly violated the terms of a World Health Organization (WHO) disclosure agreement.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

China’s Health Code App: One More Way to Track Citizens