Databases full of real names and ID numbers have been used in China for censorship and surveillance, but can they help stop the virus?
Alarm over the rapidly spreading coronavirus in China has made it important to keep tabs on where people have been. That's why anyone who needs proof that they haven't been near the epicenter of the virus in Wuhan, Hubei province, can now request location data from their telecom carrier.
By sending a text message to any of China's three state-owned telecom companies, users can get a message back showing a list of cities and provinces they visited within the last 14 days. This is just one of the ways the country has been using its vast trove of data to track and stop the virus.
In this battle, China might have an edge. Many of the country's services, including those from telecom companies, require real-name registration. Depending on the service, this might have been introduced for practical reasons or for social control and surveillance.
The result is a vast trove of data about people around the country. It's allowed authorities to build tools that can easily track down people who recently traveled to Wuhan and who might have been in touch with potential disease carriers.
One example is a new government platform called Close Contact Detector, which was launched this week by state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC). The platform, designed with the State Council and the National Health Commission, pulls in data from China's health authorities, the Ministry of Transport, China Railway and China's aviation authority.
The platform is simple: You register with your phone number and put in your name and ID number. The results rely on big data from public authorities to see if you worked, lived, or traveled with a person confirmed or suspected to have the virus within the last two weeks.
One of the most important sources proved to be Chinese railways. The official booking platform, which originally started requiring ID numbers to prevent widespread ticket scalping, now has 20 years of passenger travel data.
"If there is a confirmed or suspected passenger on the train, we will retrieve the relevant information of the passenger," Zhu Jiansheng from the China Academy of Railway Sciences told Xinhua last week. The system can also pull up the names of those who rode behind and in front of an infected passenger and forwards the information to disease prevention departments, he said.
Real-name registration has been widespread in China from even before the outbreak. Examples range from introducing gaming anti-addiction systems for minors to controlling political speech with real-name registration on social media. These moves have narrowed the scope of anonymous activity online. Now in the midst of a health crisis, it looks like these efforts are moving offline, too.
"I think it is possible that the Chinese government would be collecting more personal data during and after the virus outbreak for better control and monitoring, and the data privacy would get worse," said Michael Chau, a professor at Hong Kong University Faculty who studies information management.
But the information available is still limited. The Close Contact Detector website states that it doesn't include data on contact in places like supermarkets and shopping malls -- but it says this could change in future versions.
Local governments are also now chipping in with their own data sources.
Taking a public bus, for instance, has become a completely different experience in one Chinese city. People in the northern city of Shenyang who want to take the subway, a bus or a taxi now have to pull out their phones and scan a QR code that automatically uploads their names and contact information to a platform co-developed by Meituan Dianping. A similar system was introduced by ride-hailing platform Didi for its taxis.
In Yunnan province, authorities require all residents to scan a QR code through a WeChat mini program when they enter and leave any public place. In some Chinese cities, pharmacies are implementing real-name systems for customers who buy cough and fever drugs.
The country's big data tools have been popular among those hoping to avoid becoming one of the tens of thousands of people infected by a disease that's already killed more than 1,300. The makers of Close Contact Detector said that they recorded 100 million queries within just two days of its launch. But the effort has also left some wondering what will happen to all this data when the crisis is over.
Close Contact Detector is made by CETC's Big Data National Laboratory for Social Security Risk Awareness, Prevention, and Control. The agency is involved in predictive policing, among other things. Its main focus is not epidemic prevention, but fighting security threats and supporting counter-terrorism efforts.
One intrusive policing tool made by a CETC subsidiary was used in Xinjiang to track members of the Uyghur minority, a million of whom have been interned in camps, according to the UN. Some of the data it records includes how often people pray, whether they use too much electricity and even whether they use the back door of their house.
CETC didn't reply to questions about their plans for the Close Contact Detector.
For now, many of the initiatives to track people throughout China have been left to local governments. But the crisis could be a useful argument to justify why real-name registration systems are needed, said Kenneth C.C. Yang, a communications professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Yang argues that big data doesn't seem to have helped the government curb the spread of the virus. So it could also stoke anger in China, where many have been openly challenging the government's handling of the outbreak and demanding more free speech.
"Given the failure of proper containment of the outbreak across China, many Chinese citizens may end up questioning, if the CCP has the technical capacities to collect the massive amount of personal information, how come the virus spread out so fast," Yang said.
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