China has one of the most extensive surveillance systems in the world, with millions of CCTV cameras spread throughout the country and AI systems analyzing citizens. The outbreak of the CCP coronavirus has given the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) an excuse to strengthen and widen the surveillance network.
Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, believes that the CCP coronavirus will expand Beijing’s surveillance capabilities in the same way that the 2008 Olympics and 2010 Shanghai Expo did. She calls the phenomenon “Mission Creep,” meaning that once the surveillance systems are in place, the companies and government would expand their use as much as possible due to the money that can be made through the system, as well as the greater control that can be exerted over the people.
Since the government announced coronavirus restrictions, Chinese citizens have been forced to endure even greater scrutiny. “Getting into one’s apartment compound or workplace requires scanning a QR code, writing down one’s name and ID number, temperature and recent travel history. Telecom operators track people’s movements while social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo have hotlines for people to report others who may be sick. Some cities are offering people rewards for informing on sick neighbors,” according to The Guardian.
Chinese companies have launched facial recognition technology that can identify people not wearing masks or those who have high temperatures. Apps have been introduced that alert people when they are near those who have been infected by the coronavirus. In Hangzhou, the administration launched a feature through AliPay that assesses the infection risk of a user. The person has to answer a set of questions covering their current health and travel history. AliPay generates a QR code based on the collected data. When entering residential societies, business establishments, etc., the guards at the place scan the code to get the health data to determine whether the person can be allowed inside or should be quarantined.
“I am rather pessimistic that there will be a full rollback of data collection once it has been implemented for several months with public health justification. I believe that much of the collection will continue, using public health fears to gain public support,” John Bacon-Shone, associate dean of sociology at Hong Kong University, said to Fortune.
Global privacy risk
The trend of tightening surveillance and privacy risk is not something limited to China alone. Even countries in the West are in danger of going down this path. In Australia, the health minister publicly criticized a doctor for treating patients while showing symptoms of the infection. This essentially exposed the doctor’s name to the public.
“That could extend to anyone, to suddenly have the status of your health blasted out to thousands or potentially millions of people… It’s a very strange thing to do because, in the alleged interest of public health, you are actually endangering people,” Chris Gilliard, an independent privacy scholar based in the Detroit area, said to The New York Times.
In Russia, the government is using facial recognition to ensure that people who have been asked to remain at home or their hotels follow the instructions. In the U.S., authorities monitored the Uber travel records of a user suspected of being infected with the CCP coronavirus and tracked him all the way to Mexico.