Chinese tech giants have begun deploying online maps to show nearby residents who are carrying the coronavirus or COVID-19, adding a controversial new tool in the country’s battle to contain the outbreak.
- The maps use data from Chinese health authorities
- Rights groups express concerns over privacy
- Residents say strict quarantine measures are making daily life difficult
Tracking maps are available on Tencent Maps, WeChat and several other online platforms such as Qihoo 360 and Sogou.
People in more than 170 Chinese cities can check whether there are COVID-19 infected patients around them simply by scrolling on their phones.
Rather than disclosing names and other personal details of the patients, the maps use data sourced from China’s health authorities and feature the user’s distance from COVID-19 infected patients and show how many of them are in the surrounding neighbourhoods.
The Chinese Government also launched an official mobile app last week called the “close contact detector”, which can be used by employers to check on their newly-returned workers to see if they have been in close contact with people who have COVID-19.
It’s the latest effort by the Chinese Government to contain the outbreak.
Assets Supervision and Administration Commission deputy director Ren Hongbin said China was using “big data, artificial intelligence, 5G technology, cloud computing and other technical services to help prevent and control the epidemic”.
‘No effective privacy rights’
Despite concerns over privacy and the accuracy of the data, many users in China welcomed the idea of using surveillance technology to combat the virus.
“Knowing if there are any cases in the neighbourhood makes people feel more at ease,” Beijing resident Ms Yao, who did not want her first name used, told the ABC.
However, human rights experts said there was a lack of transparency and the Chinese government had credibility issues when it came to handling such data.
“Our underlying concern about the use of surveillance technology in China, whether it’s for tracking viruses or other purposes, is there are no effective privacy rights for people,” Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson told the ABC.
“Most of the technology is being used without any sort of purpose defined in law that’s proportionate or necessary for that stated aim.
“The fact is essentially the Government is using technology for whatever purposes they want, even if people want to object to that, there’s no real way for them to do so.”
Should privacy ‘take a back seat’ in public health crisis?
Others argue that privacy should be compromised given the epidemic has prompted a global health emergency.
“Many places in China have launched Level 1 emergency responses, indicating the urgency and seriousness of the epidemic,” Peng Feng from the Institute of Law of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences said in an interview with Chinese media outlet, The Paper.
“In cases of major public interest, the privacy of individual citizens should take a back seat.”
In a statement to the ABC, Tencent said it was doing its part to tackle the outbreak by giving users the latest information, but said its platform did not include “real-time tracking of people or virus movements”.
“This is an entirely optional service — users need to opt-in and give permission to use their location,” Tencent said.
“Third-party developers, who offer approved location-based services via Weixin (WeChat) Mini Programs, require explicit user consent, including location authorisation, before they can launch their services.”
The ABC also contacted Qihoo 360 and Sogou for comment but did not hear back.
Anxious residents question strict quarantine measures
Meanwhile, Wuhan locals said they were continuing to face heavy-handed quarantine measures during the lockdown.
According to a statement from the Wuhan Government, residential areas with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 must be “strictly sealed and controlled”.
Another city in Hubei province, Xiaogan, has been in lockdown since February 17. Rules include residents being detained by police if they step outside their doors.
Many other cities across the country have also begun to implement compulsory quarantine measures and residents are being urged to report any suspected patients.
In Beijing, almost 800 residential areas are under quarantine with security guards on patrol around the clock to monitor people’s movements, local media reported.
Some anxious residents bearing the brunt of the measures said the rules were making daily life extremely difficult.
“It’s impossible for every residential area to receive food and medicine delivery, do you expect 10 million people to buy food online,” a user named Nickel wrote on Weibo, China’s largest social media platform.
“Wuhan’s online shopping service can be sold out in a second. What do the rest of the people live on?”
Chinese media even reported that some residents were arrested for not wearing masks while playing Mahjong in their homes.
They were reprimanded and asked to apologise publicly. Some homes are said to have also had power and water cut off by police as punishment.
Quarantine used to buy time, expert says
Ms Richardson said even in times of crisis, strict quarantine measures and the inability of people to challenge rulings were problematic.
“Often the most effective responses to public health crises involve volunteer public participation, not compulsory and not imposed,” she said.
“It’s not clear whether they are entirely necessary or effective.”
Some infectious disease experts said mass indiscriminate quarantine measures were understandable from an epidemic prevention and control standpoint.
“Hypothetically and logically speaking, in a mainland city, quarantine provides planners and healthcare workers a bit of extra time to organise strategies, such as hospital staff, therapeutic personal protection equipment for health workers and training,” Professor Marylouise McLaws, a public health infectious disease prevention and control expert from the University of New South Wales, told the ABC.
“They have an enormous battle ahead of them. They need all the help and time they can get.”
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