Last month, China rolled out an app for people to test if they’ve been in ‘close contact’ with people exposed to the fast-spreading coronavirus. Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the app assigns a color code to users. While the code is visible to folks using the app, it also shares that data with the police.
The system, powered by Alibaba’s popular payment app Alipay, is in use in more than 200 cities. People can scan a QR code to get a green, yellow, or red tag. The green tag means you are healthy and can roam around the city unrestricted, yellow means a seven-day quarantine, and red means a 14-day quarantine.
The NYT studied the code of the app and found that it sends a person’s location, city name, and an identifying code number to a server that supposedly belongs to authorities. The app shares this data to the server every time someone scans the code. This makes it easier for the authorities to track someone’s movements. While it’s common for tech companies in China to share the data with the government, this direct method sets a new precedent.
There’s not much detail on how these codes are assigned. Speculatively, China is using its high-tech surveillance and monitoring prowess to identify people possibly affected by the virus.
According to a report from TechNode, several users pointed out that members of the same family who have been in isolation together got different results. So, it’s hard to rely on the app completely.
As the situation in China gets worse day-by-day, the Chinese government is putting in more effort to track people possibly affected by the COVID-19. In the initial days of the outbreak, safety masks fooled facial recognition systems, which made it hard for the government to track people.
Last month, the Chinese search giant Baidu open-sourced its AI model to identify people without face masks. On the other hand, China-based AI company SenseTime developed an algorithm that can detect faces even when people are wearing masks.