In Coronavirus Fight, China Gives Citizens a Color Code, With Red Flags

HANGZHOU, China — As China encourages folks to return to work regardless of the coronavirus outbreak, it has begun a daring mass experiment in utilizing knowledge to manage residents’ lives — by requiring them to make use of software program on their smartphones that dictates whether or not they need to be quarantined or allowed into subways, malls and different public areas.

But a New York Times evaluation of the software program’s code discovered that the system does greater than determine in actual time whether or not somebody poses a contagion danger. It additionally seems to share info with the police, setting a template for brand new types of automated social management that would persist lengthy after the epidemic subsides.

Such surveillance creep would have historical precedent, said Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch. China has a record of using major events, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, to introduce new monitoring tools that outlast their original purpose, Ms. Wang said.

“The coronavirus outbreak is proving to be one of those landmarks in the history of the spread of mass surveillance in China,” she said.

In a statement, Ant Financial’s general counsel, Leiming Chen, said that Ant required all third-party developers, including those offering health code services, to adhere to its data security and privacy requirements, which include obtaining user consent before providing services. “The collaboration between private and public sectors in epidemic control is a common global practice,” Mr. Chen said.

The early days of the epidemic seemed to expose the limits of Beijing’s expensive computerized snooping. Blacklists targeting criminals and dissidents floundered at the task of monitoring entire populations. Facial recognition proved easily flummoxed by face masks.

After users fill in a form on Alipay with personal details, the software generates a QR code in one of three colors. A green code enables its holder to move about unrestricted. Someone with a yellow code may be asked to stay home for seven days. Red means a two-week quarantine.

In Hangzhou, it has become nearly impossible to get around without showing your Alipay code. Propaganda-style banners remind everyone of the rules: “Green code, travel freely. Red or yellow, report immediately.”

At times during a recent visit, tensions over the code were evident. Two subway guards said older passengers, annoyed by the phone checks, had cursed and yelled at them. When one middle-age man barged through a line, a guard had to run him down. As she did, others slipped by, their phones unchecked.

Ant Financial declined to answer questions about how the system worked, saying that government departments set the rules and controlled the data. Alipay has 900 million users across China. Ant is part-owned by Alibaba, whose shares trade in New York and are owned by major international investors.

Tencent, the Chinese internet giant that runs the messaging app WeChat, which has over a billion monthly users, has also worked with the authorities to build its own health code system.

Leon Lei, 29, signed up for an Alipay code before leaving his hometown, Anqing, to return to work in Hangzhou. At first, his code was green. But a day before he departed, it turned red, and he didn’t know why. Anqing has not been especially hard hit by the virus, though it neighbors Hubei Province, the center of the outbreak.

Holed up at home and unable to concentrate on her work, Ms. Wong is feeling helpless. She cannot help noticing that the system encourages a kind of regional prejudice.

“It divides people up based on where they’re from,” she said. “Isn’t that discrimination?”

With fear of the virus still acute, many in China take comfort in high-tech precautions, even if they are at times impractical and dysfunctional. Doo Wang, 26, said her code was red for a day before it inexplicably changed to green. Calling a support hotline yielded no answers. Yet she still approves of the system.

“If we had to use it indefinitely, that would be crazy — just way too big a pain,” Ms. Wang said. “But for the epidemic, it makes sense.”

She shrugged off the privacy concerns. “Alipay already has all our data. So what are we afraid of? Seriously.”

Paul Mozur reported from Hangzhou, Raymond Zhong from Beijing and Aaron Krolik from New York. Research was contributed by Lin Qiqing from Hangzhou and Wang Yiwei from Beijing.

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