Contact-tracing app may become a permanent fixture in major Chinese city

Hangzhou wants a 'health and immunity firewall'

One of China's major tech hubs is planning to make a health and movement tracking system developed to fight the COVID-19 epidemic a permanent fixture in daily life.

Officials in the city of Hangzhou, home to Alibaba and other Chinese tech concernts, said on Friday (Chinese language) the local government wishes to create creating a permanent version the country's tracing app that was designed to help lift the country out of lockdown. The proposed system would be a "'firewall' to enhance people's health and immunity" after the pandemic, the city's health commission said.

The app, which is mandatory, gives users green, yellow, or red status based on their travel history and whether they have been in contact with known cases.

Residents who recently traveled to a virus hot spot, for instance, would be given a red code and be asked to quarantine for 14 days. Those who were feeling healthy and had no contact with confirmed cases are given a green code and are allowed to move freely around the city.

The app covers one billion people and the codes it generates have been scanned more than nine billion times, according to Tencent, which co-developed the app with Alibaba.

The proposal put forward by Hangzhou's Health Commission would assign users a health score ranging from 0 to 100 based on their medical records, physical examinations, as well as lifestyle factors, such as how many cigarettes they smoke, steps they walk, or hours they sleep daily.

The new system adds another layer to China's extensive programme for monitoring its citizens. Facial recognition technology has become standard in many cities and has been used to catch criminals in large crowds and automatically fine jaywalkers. The country's social credit system monitors citizen's online behaviour, such as social media posts and online shopping, to determine a "citizen score" that is used to reward and punish.

The new proposal would give authorities access to much more personal data, leading some critics to draw comparisons to Black Mirror. Hangzhou's Health Commission did not explain how it would obtain such data or whether it would need users' consent to access it.

Data protection has been a long-time issue in China, with officials attempting to craft an overarching law to protect personal information for well over a decade. Last week at the country's annual National People's Congress, Standing Committee chair Li Zhanshu said the government would push forward with a such a law as part of an attempt to improve "national security and social governance." ®

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