China bins its COVID tracking app
Tracked location and kept records of phone calls, and determined ability to travel. Which China will keep doing with other tech, for other reasons
China discontinued operation of its COVID tracking app on Monday as part of the Middle Kingdom's transition away from a dynamic zero-COVID strategy.
According to an announcement from the state-run Communications Itinerary Card's Weixin – otherwise known as the domestic version of WeChat – the service closed when the clock struck midnight into Tuesday morning.
Chinese residents were required to display the app on their phones before entering venues or moving between provinces as proof that they were free of COVID risk. The app shows a color – green, yellow or red – depending on a user's assessed risk. Green was safe and allowed folks to move freely, yellow meant the user should isolate as they could be a risk, and red indicated a positive COVID test or likely exposure.
If the app showed red or yellow screens, citizens were denied domestic travel or barred from public spaces like shopping malls or commercial buildings.
The app was a constant companion to those in China for almost two years and nine months. It determined the user's risk by tracking phone signals and location information. The data it collected included encrypted mobile phone numbers, travel details over the past two weeks and any domestic city that the user was in for more than four hours.
That status was set, in part, by requiring citizens to scan QR codes located on many premises and venues.
Last weekend, images of those QR codes being removed from public spaces began to appear across Chinese social media.
The app was launched in early 2020 by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology in conjunction with telecom companies China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom, all of which are state-run.
Reportedly, according to an announcement from China Telecom, user data was deleted at the time of the app's retirement.
While the binning of the app has caused many citizens to celebrate, it does not mean the end of tracking in China. Local apps are still used in many cities. According to What's on Weibo, a site that monitors Chinese social media, at least 31 different regional apps exist.
Nonetheless more than a few people are glad to see the end of the app, and the end of obsessing about retaining green status. Criticisms of the app included both privacy issues and complaints that users who entered cities with a high-risk zone would be classified as a risk even if they did not journey into the area specifically deemed as high-risk.
But as intra-province travel restrictions have lifted with the overall easing of COVID restrictions, the app has become redundant. A ten point announcement issued by the National Health Commission last Wednesday laid out new, more chilled-out COVID strategy.
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In addition to confining the requirement to show the app to spaces deemed vulnerable – like elderly care facilities, schools and infant care – the directive reduced lockdowns to floors of a building rather than whole structure or neighborhood. COVID positive individuals will be advised to self isolate at home, and businesses will not be required to shut down.
The changes follow highly unusual protests sparked by a building fire in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where at least ten people died. Authorities have denied allegations that anti-COVID measures contributed to victims' inability to escape the fire.
Citizens took to the streets venting their frustrations and holding white sheets of paper that symbolised their inability to voice their protests in China's highly-monitored and censored social and mainstream media.
After police told people not to chant “no more lockdowns” they began chanting “more lockdowns” and “I want to do COVID tests” pic.twitter.com/R8Y29TRFwa— Vivian Wang (@vwang3) November 27, 2022
Beijing's decision has spread to Hong Kong, where chief executive Li Jiachao announced on Weibo that from Wednesday onward, residents of the Territory would also be relieved of their COVID tracking platform.
Most countries have abandoned or reduced their COVID tracking apps, as it turned out the technology regularly overpromised and underdelivered..
Australia scrapped its app in August after it was deemed a massive failure. Japan pulled the plug on its version in September. Singapore – which had slightly more success with its than others thanks to strict adherence to its use and other measures that bolstered tracing – limited the app to select uses as of April. ®