Exclusive: How China uses personal data to control Covid-19

By Yun Xuan Poon

Does this radical approach reveal our future after we have flattened the curve?

After more than two months of being shut off from the world, the city of Wuhan has opened its gates. People are now allowed to leave the city, but they have to check their phones for permission.

China has introduced a simple system that tells citizens if they are allowed to enter buildings and travel to other cities. The Alipay app, used widely in China for digital payments, assigns citizens with a coloured QR code: green means you’re allowed to move around; yellow means you should stay at home; red means you have to visit the hospital or be isolated immediately.

This is powered by reams of personal data provided by the Chinese Government. GovInsider spoke to Yong Lu, Vice President at the Shanghai Data Exchange Corporation, who represents China at international digital government summits such as Singapore’s Digital Government Exchange, to find out how it works.

Explaining the colours

The QR code system combines massive amounts of personal data held by the Chinese state in different databases across local and national levels. It demonstrates how data can be used to control Covid-19, and the broader debate around privacy that is now inevitable as governments bring this virus to heel.

First, it looks at a person’s medical records in the national health cloud to check if they have tested positive for the coronavirus, or have worrying symptoms.

Next, the system processes a citizen’s travel history, which they have to declare at each checkpoint to generate the QR code. The Alipay app asks them for details on where they’ve been in the last 14 days, and whether they travelled by plane, train, or car.

This is cross-checked with data that the government collects on each travel ticket sold. “In China, train tickets are connected directly with your ID. It’s in the system already, which compartment, even your seat number,” explains Lu. This means that if a confirmed patient has been on a flight recently, authorities can notify all passengers.

Lastly, the system draws location-based information from telcos to check if they have visited a high-risk zone recently. All these are combined with a person’s temperature to determine whether it’s safe for them to leave their homes.

This data is stored and analysed in each city’s municipal big data centre, but can be easily shared across cities. When citizens leave a city, the local government shares their records with the city they arrive at.

For those with yellow or red codes, cities dispatch community workers to check their temperatures twice daily, and to ensure that they are not leaving their houses “so it’s a closed loop,” Lu says. The QR codes make this process easier, since they are an easy way to verify citizens’ identity.

Troubleshooting the QR codes

The system uses government data but outsources delivery to the most popular services. “People thought this [system] was done by Alibaba or Tencent, but it’s not,” says Lu. “All the data is on the government side.” He adds that private companies merely provide the platform for delivering this service, since their services are popular amongst Chinese citizens.

China commonly uses this public-private partnership model for its e-government delivery. The nation is so vast that it outsources services through the major platforms, while controlling the data that powers them. UN ESCAP published research in 2019 that showed how this system lets China quickly scale up new services.

Some users have reported unexplained yellow or red codes, however, resulting in a lot of confusion and frustration. Lu explains that this can sometimes happen because of the way cell phone numbers are distributed in China.

“In China, you need to provide ID for every cell phone number you buy. In some cases, a father buys five cell phone numbers and distributes them to the family,” he says. This may lead to the app assigning wrong colours.
Citizens can call the authorities to submit an appeal if they believe they have been wrongly assigned a yellow or red code. They can check their code again the next day, after the app’s daily refresh. In the meantime, they would have to stay at home.

These codes are combined with other measures to keep citizens safe. Citizens can refer to a community epidemic map to find out the number of red and yellow QR codes in each region. They also have to arrange for a time slot to visit government offices, so agencies can “control the density of people in a certain area”, notes Lu.

More covtech: an upcoming contact tracing app

China is also working on a contact tracing app which uses bluetooth signals to find out close interactions in public spaces, Lu reveals. This app, similar to Singapore's TraceTogether, may help to tighten the loop.

The contact tracing app will be “supplementary” to the existing QR code system, says Lu. While the government already has information on citizens’ whereabouts on trains and planes, “if you go to a public area, we don’t have a way to track the closeness with high-risk citizens,” he adds.

Phonemakers need to iron out a few issues before China’s app is ready, though. iPhone users have to keep the TraceTogether app open on their phones for the bluetooth signal to work. Apple announced two weeks ago that it will team up with Google to work around this issue.

This bluetooth contact tracing app will come on top of more manual forms of contact tracing already used in the subway. Each compartment has a QR code that commuters can scan to automatically log their location. “If there is a confirmed case in the same compartment, [the authorities] have a way to notify you,” says Lu.

China has shown itself to be the bellwether for us all in controlling the spread of Covid-19. This approach could reveal how our lives will be in the rest of 2020 and beyond.