China's Coronavirus App Uses Mass Surveillance to Tell Citizens If They Could Be Infected

China has released an app that lets users check if they have been in contact with a person confirmed or suspected having a coronavirus infection.

As the death toll of the deadly outbreak tops 1,100, health authorities in the country have rolled out mobile software that comes with a "close contact detector" showing potential victims on a map. It was made public last Saturday, the state's Xinhua News Agency reported.

Images of the software have since been posted to Twitter, with possible coronavirus infections seen marked with large red dots.

According to the South China Morning Post, the app is fed data from China's vast surveillance apparatus, which is known to retain large amounts of personal information on its own citizens. It tracks movements based on records from public authorities.

The app gleans data from the transport ministry, the railway service, the Civil Aviation Administration (CAA) and the National Health Commission.

Freedom House, an NGO that researches political and human rights, gave China 11/100 in its Freedom in the World 2019 report, noting its expanding snooping capabilities.

It says: "Surveillance cameras, increasingly augmented with facial recognition software, cover many urban areas and public transportation, and are expanding into rural regions."

It added: "Pilot programs for a Social Credit System rate citizens' trustworthiness based not only on financial responsibility or debt records, but also on purchasing behavior, video gaming habits, social acquaintances, and adherence to rules in public spaces. Devices used by police to quickly extract and scan data from smartphones... have spread nationwide."

As noted by MIT Technology Review, the new coronavirus app would likely be impossible to roll out without troves of data ingested by those surveillance networks.

The software is accessible by scanning a QR into popular apps including Alipay, WeChat or QQ, with users registering with a phone number, name and national identification number. The app will reportedly then show if they had been in close contact with any at-risk individuals.

A registered phone number can request data on three ID numbers. Anyone found to be in close contact is told to remain at home and alert emergency services.

The app checks if an individual has worked, lived or traveled with a person confirmed or suspected of being infected, but does not include visits to public spaces such as supermarkets or shopping malls. It has already been used for 100 million inquiries, the South China Morning Post reported.

The data is dated back by two weeks, state health authorities said.

An application description confirms it uses data about "contact with diagnosed or suspected patients." The government says it is a "convenient and efficient" tool for citizens.

Close contact is defined as a person who has been in close proximity to the user without virus protection. It includes co-workers, hospital patients and travelers.

According to state media, all passengers in an enclosed air-conditioned train cabin would be considered to have been in close contact. On a flight, close contact would be defined as being on the same row or within three rows front and back of a sick individual.

"Due to the complexity of the epidemic, the related query results are for reference only. Please pay close attention to your physical condition," the application page explains. "If you have any related symptoms, please consult a professional medical institution in time."

Alongside images of the software, it adds: "[While] using, please pay attention to the safety of data use, strictly abide by the relevant laws and regulations, and do not use the data provided by this tool to engage in activities that infringe on the reputation and privacy of others."

As of today (February 12), there have been more than 42,000 confirmed infections around the world and more than 1,115 deaths. It is now officially known as COVID-19.

The director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) said yesterday the outbreak is a "very grave threat for the rest of the world" as infections continued to spread globally. There is no known cure for the virus, which spreads through contact with an infected person.

It is believed to have originated in Wuhan, a city of about 11 million people that was quarantined by the government. With transport limited, most citizens are confined to their homes.

Coronavirus - Crowd Photo
Passengers wear face masks as they arrive from Shenzhen to Hong Kong at Lo Wu MTR station, hours before the closing of the Lo Wu border crossing in Hong Kong, on February 3, 2020. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty