As China encourages people to return to work despite the coronavirus outbreak, it has begun a bold mass experiment in using data to regulate citizens’ lives — by requiring them to use software on their smartphones that dictates whether they should be quarantined or allowed into subways, malls and other public spaces.
But a New York Times analysis of the software’s code found that the system does more than decide in real time whether someone poses a contagion risk. It also appears to share information with the police, setting a template for new forms of automated social control that could persist long after the epidemic subsides.
The Times’s analysis found that as soon as a user grants the software access to personal data, a piece of the program labeled “reportInfoAndLocationToPolice” sends the person’s location, city name and an identifying code number to a server. The software does not make clear to users its connection to the police. But according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency and an official police social media account, law enforcement authorities were a crucial partner in the system’s development.
While Chinese internet companies often share data with the government, the process is rarely so direct. In the United States, it would be akin to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using apps from Amazon and Facebook to track the coronavirus, then quietly sharing user information with the local sheriff’s office.
“The coronavirus outbreak is proving to be one of those landmarks in the history of the spread of mass surveillance in China,” she said.
The thing is, without its mass surveillance capabilities, the Chinese police state would not have been able to slow down coronavirus as well as it has. This piece from Science magazine explains how the state’s aggressive measures really did keep a terrible situation from becoming far worse. But:
How feasible these kinds of stringent measures are in other countries is debatable. “China is unique in that it has a political system that can gain public compliance with extreme measures,” Gostin says. “But its use of social control and intrusive surveillance are not a good model for other countries.” The country also has an extraordinary ability to do labor-intensive, large-scale projects quickly, says Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development: “No one else in the world really can do what China just did.”
Nor should they, says lawyer Alexandra Phelan, a China specialist at Georgetown’s Center for Global Health Science and Security. “Whether it works is not the only measure of whether something is a good public health control measure,” Phelan says. “There are plenty of things that would work to stop an outbreak that we would consider abhorrent in a just and free society.”
That’s right, we would normally consider them abhorrent, but would we consider them abhorrent if people were dropping dead left and right, and the government said it needed to implement these measures to stop the dying? Are you sure that you would say no to that? And then, once the system is in place, it could set “a template for new forms of automated social control that could persist long after the epidemic subsides.”
And this is how an unprecedented public health crisis in the digital age could lay the groundwork for the expansion of the Pink Police State.