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Chinese authorities track people’s phones as some return to work

Miami-Dade said it wiped the data from 13 phones temporarily issued county officials for a two-week trade mission to China and Japan in March 2018. The Miami Herald requested text messages from one of the phones, only to discover the data had been deleted. That could be a violation of state law. (Dreamstime)
March 04, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in China are using big data gleaned from popular social media apps to step up surveillance of hundreds of millions of people caught up in the coronavirus epidemic.

Anyone who visits an office building, shopping mall, or residential compound, or who rides the subway in certain regions of the country not currently on lockdown, could be asked to scan a QR code with their phone and fill in details about their travel history and body temperature.

The data is being combined with the nationwide facial recognition and surveillance camera network known as Skynet, and personal details used to log payments via WeChat and other apps, RFA has learned.

Zhang Maolin, a resident of Jiujiang city in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangxi, said his region is among those stepping up surveillance of people using their phones.

“[My nephew] drove from Jiujiang to Nanchang, which is the provincial capital,” Zhang told RFA on Tuesday. “The moment he arrived in Nanchang, he got a phone call from the local police department who told him to stay put.”

“They arrived soon afterwards and looked at his driving route before letting him go, because it wasn’t problematic,” Zhang said. “There’s a backdoor in Chinese-made cell phones, so it makes no difference that they don’t have your password.”

“And all cell phone users must use base stations, regardless of which kind of phone they have, so there is a backdoor when you are on the move,” he said. “They can call up our trajectory when driving.”

At least 15 provinces and cities with a combined population of over 358 million have announced such “big data” measures this month, Reuters reported.

New features introduced

In newly launched features by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd’s Alipay and Tencent Holdings Ltd’s WeChat apps, users fill in a questionnaire to obtain a obtain color-based QR code which then acts as guidance at checkpoints as to whether the person should be quarantined or let through.

Zhang said similar measures are being implemented in his home county of Lushan, where WeChat data is being used by the authorities to track users’ movements.

“We have to enter our details into WeChat, which then generates an electronic card for me, which I have to swipe wherever I go,” he said. “I have to tap out when I go out and again when I come in.”

“If I go to the supermarket to buy groceries, it automatically swipes the QR code on my phone,” Zhang said. “This is so they can keep track of our daily schedule.”

Former NetEase employee Cao Yongchang said WeChat isn’t the only tech company to collaborate with the ruling Chinese Communist Party on user tracking for “big data epidemic control and prevention.”

He said the major mobile service providers are believed to be signed up too.

“I’m pretty sure that not just WeChat, but China Unicom, China Mobile, and China Telecom are all taking part in this,” Cao said. “They track you using your phone’s signal, and then local neighborhood officials watch people’s movements.”

Cao said the system had been in place in his hometown for a few days now.

“It varies from place to place,” he said. “I have a friend who went from Hunan to Guangzhou for work [who told me] that he has to swipe his phone if he wants to enter a residential compound.”

“They won’t let you in until they’ve plotted your trajectory in the last month,” Cao said.

Money transfers tracked

An inside source who gave only a surnamed Li said WeChat’s money transfer feature is also being used to monitor people’s movements on a massive scale, as WeChat Payments are often the only form of payment amid concerns over virus transmission.

Data about the kinds of purchases users are making is also being used to assess the risk of someone transmitting the coronavirus, Li said.

“If you pay with cash, they won’t know about it, but they will definitely know if you pay by WeChat,” Li said. “The type of product will also be shown.”

“They will use this data to infer things, and it’s more accurate if it targets everyone,” he said. “There is a very small margin of error. Big data is so powerful.”

“I think local government officials are the ones making use of it.”

Repeated calls to WeChat’s parent company Tencent rang unanswered on Tuesday, as did calls to the Cyberspace Administration.

Millions return to work

The surveillance is being implemented as millions of people return to work after an enforced and extended break after Lunar New Year, as the epidemic tore through central China and began spreading to other regions.

Mainland China has reported more than 80,000 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and nearly 3,000 deaths since the epidemic began.

But there are concerns that the increased focus on “stability maintenance” and surveillance will just become the new norm.

“Of course governments have the responsibility to protect public health and safety but these measures have to balance other rights as well, including privacy rights,” Maya Wang, China senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

“Some of these criteria are very broad, and when you use this criteria and feed it into the app, how accurate are they?”

Some running out of money

While the rest of China worries about staving off further infections, some 10 million residents are still struggling to get by in worst-hit Wuhan, which remains under transportation lockdown with some people running out of money amid skyrocketing prices.

A volunteer in Wuhan who gave only a surname Pan said that while international attention was focused on the frontline medical battle against COVID-19, with aid donations pouring in from across China and around the world, none of that is aimed at the city’s ordinary people.

“These subsidies don’t include money or supplies for ordinary people,” Pan said.

“I saw a video a couple of days ago saying that the Qingshan district government was handing out two pounds of meat, a bag of rice and 10 pounds of vegetables [per household] for free, but we haven’t had anything like that in Qiaokou district yet.”