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Tech Tyranny: Coronavirus Triggers Digital Dictatorship

Health certificates are the newest form of identification in China – and perhaps elsewhere.

Editor’s Note – As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.

As the Coronavirus subsides in China, cities are coming out of lockdown, including the epicenter of the outbreak, Wuhan. The return to normal life – if such a thing is possible – is slow, but the authorities have developed software to make sure people are kept in (or out of) the right places. Hundreds of regions across the country are employing the Health Code software, installed into the widely used Alipay (payment) and WeChat (social media) apps. After each individual submits their national ID number and fills out a brief questionnaire, they are assigned a color-coded health status. Red (uh-oh, you likely have the virus), yellow (you have come into contact with a virus carrier and should be in quarantine), or green (all clear). The police were instrumental in developing the software; as Business Insider put it: “This means the apps are providing the technology and access to the health programs, but local governments are creating the database and issuing the health codes.”

An estimated 10,000 people flew out of Wuhan as soon as the city’s lockdown ended. Thousands of others booked train tickets out of town, or drove away like bats out of hell – but none have been allowed to travel unless given a green health status indicating they do not carry the disease.

The software was developed and first introduced in the city of Hangzhou, a popular domestic tourist destination. Beijing soon followed and from there on it spread across the country – and the concept perhaps internationally.

Not only does a red or yellow classification prevent people from traveling around the country, but they can also prevent one from riding the subway, entering a workplace, apartment building, or public place. It is already standard for bags to be checked when entering the subway, but now passengers must also show attendants their green health status.


Wu Shenghong, a 51-year-old Wuhan resident, freed from quarantine, told Time magazine that people with red and yellow codes “are definitely not running around outside.” She added: “I feel safe.”

A Shanghai resident who self-isolated while visiting a province near Wuhan, meanwhile, told the U.K.’s Channel 4 News the information might not be reliable:

“Our office building here, you need to register. You need to show the code to demonstrate that you’re healthy. So, when I was red there was no way I could go to the office and work. I didn’t do anything, then after two or three days I looked and suddenly it was green. I don’t know why. But I think that although it’s not really reasonable, it is still a preventative measure.”

Health data is not the only thing the software may be collecting. It functions mostly based on users’ location and travel information. Shanghai-based Paul Mozur, reporting on technology for The New York Times, revealed it not only assigns data, but also collects it:

“We actually looked at the backend code that the app was running and what you could see is the moment the user gives it permission to access data, it immediately sends a function that says ‘report info and location to police.’ And then we looked into it, and the police were a key developer of the product as well. And so from that you can tell that the data is basically being sent back to the police, the moment somebody actually uses the app.”

The move has been widely criticized in the Western press, with many questioning the increased surveillance and human rights implications of the tracking. “The coronavirus outbreak is proving to be one of those landmarks in the history of the spread of mass surveillance in China,” commented Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Your Papers, Please

It’s easy to condemn China for carrying out increased surveillance while failing to question our own elite for making similar suggestions. Rumors have been flying around social media that Bill Gates plans to install microchips for medical information or, put another way: “human-implantable capsules that have ‘digital certificates’ which can show who has been tested for the coronavirus and who has been vaccinated against it.” The story was rated as false by a Reuters fact-check, and indeed it is fake news that Bill Gates has publicly recommended microchips to verify the public’s immunity from COVID-19.

There is a nugget of truth in the story, however. During a Q&A on his GatesNotes blog, the Microsoft founder did propose that the post-COVID future would involve “digital certificates” to demonstrate immunity. When asked how businesses could continue to operate during the pandemic, he replied, “Eventually we will have some digital certificates to show who has recovered or been tested recently or when we have a vaccine who has received it.” According to the IBM website, a digital certificate is a form of ID analogous to a drivers’ license or passport.

Not only is Gates suggesting that people will need digital identification showing that they are not carrying the virus, but they will also need to demonstrate that they have been vaccinated to participate in society. That seems bad enough, even without the microchip addition.

European nations, too, are toying with the idea of “immunity passports.” Germany and Britain are considering the documents for people shown to have Coronavirus antibodies in their bloodstream. It’s not clear how the certification would work, or whether these documents would be digital. Britain’s Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said it could take the form of a wristband – at least that lacks the location tracking and immediate police notification of the Chinese version. As for the United States, The Independent reported on April 2 that the Trump administration has not seriously considered such a move. Asked on CNN about the matter, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci seemed reluctant to commit to an answer. “You know, that’s possible,” he said. “I mean, it’s one of those things that we talk about when we want to make sure that we know who the vulnerable people are and not. This is something that’s being discussed. I think it might actually have some merit, under certain circumstances.”

That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next week to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.


Read more from Laura Valkovic.

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