Keywords: Coronavirus, coronavirus outbreak, COVID-19, technology, technology use, mass surveillance, public monitoring, Chinese authorities.

Coronavirus; From Wuhan City to a Global Pandemic

One issue ravaging the entire world in recent weeks is the coronavirus that seems to have plagued several nations across the globe, with the first COVID-19 case recorded in Wuhan city in the Hubei province of China. So far, there are more than 80,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus within China and at least 3,000 deaths resulting from the disease.

COVID – 19 Outbreak Grinds Almost Every Activity to A Halt

This coronavirus outbreak not only posed health care problems to China, but it also caused a relapse in its economic activities, halted production across all stages, shut factories and businesses down, put cities and provinces under lockdown. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, China has employed several means to tackle the spread of the virus by ensuring social stability and consequentially, monitor the spread of the virus among its citizens. Deliberate efforts in health care to cloud computing and artificial intelligence show an intentional increase in technology levels across all areas.

Social Control Is Now Driven by Innovative Technologies

Increased technology use is a common trend in virtually every sector in China. Still, mass surveillance and public monitoring systems are experiencing a seemingly significant increase in structures and developments across China. It is feared that these practices might not end even after the coronavirus outbreak is contained, and it becomes a thing of the past. The boost in mass surveillance systems is development across many forms, including facial recognition, mobile network tracking features, voice samples recognition, drones, and CCTV cameras, scans, and QR codes.

According to Maya Wang, a Senior Researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, ”China makes social control an overarching priority by spending huge resources on security agencies and protocols for censoring the internet, monitoring non-conformists, building and utilizing mass surveillance systems.”

These innovative technologies have seen smart helmets, disinfecting robots, advanced facial recognition software, and thermal imaging drones being utilized in the fight against COVID – 19. In a bid to minimize the exposure and cross-infection risk, Chinese firms like Pudu Technology and MicroMultiCopter have developed and deployed automated technologies that are being used to transport medical supplies, spray disinfectants, and conduct initial diagnostic functions across several cities.

Multibillion-Dollar Tech Firms and Chinese Surveillance

With the Chinese government working with China’s tech giants to combat the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, this is merely a reflection of the growth of Chinese technology, especially in artificial intelligence since rolling out its tech plan in 2017. China’s top tech firms such as Alibaba, DiDi, Tencent, and Huawei have come into collaboration with Chinese authorities to develop improved technologies and AI products to aid the health care and security systems in tracking several millions of people every day. Founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba, Jack Ma, recently announced a $2.15m towards combating the spread of the virus and developing a cure.

Artificial Intelligence firms like Megvii and SenseTime, have deployed contactless temperature software and equipment to several underground stations across cities in China. These companies also claim to have facial ID tools capable of recognizing faces, with a very high degree of accuracy even with the mask on.

Surveillance and Excessive Public Monitoring

This development was tagged as excessive coronavirus public monitoring by Chinese residents and citizens, who complained that despite the unavoidable lockdown of entire cities and provinces, local authorities had employed numerous security procedures all under the guise of controlling the coronavirus.

I think there are signs that the coronavirus outbreak, like these events above, serves as a catalyst and a boost for China’s development in mass surveillance systems.” – Maya Wang, a Senior Researcher on China at Human Rights Watch.

Getting into buildings requires scanning a QR code, taking temperature readings, filling one’s name and identification number, and recent travel history in logs.

On the Alipay app, users are assigned a QR code that tells them the duration of their quarantine period based on their national identity numbers and travel history. The QR code is based on a traffic light system (green, yellow, and red to determine whether individuals should stay quarantined at home or be allowed into public spaces). On WeChat, these QR codes also perform a similar function to the Alipay app but include a base tracking feature that notifies the user if they have come in contact with someone who has the virus. The close contact app also shows the user’s current risk and exposure levels.

Privacy Concerns over Increased Surveillance

The increased surveillance across China may seem like a necessity, and it might even be considered effective in these times. However, there are still concerns raised about the privacy of the data that these apps and companies collect and keep on users. An alarming number of these apps require the user’s national ID number, name, phone number, and other details necessary for registration.

There are increased worries about the popularity of facial recognition software and face scans for mobile phone users. All under the guise of surveillance, sourcing data from health agencies, transport agencies and phone carriers by Chinese authorities shows how minimal data transparency is on the part of the government and the companies creating these apps. Personal health data of citizens have also been leaked via the internet, and several reports have it on good authority that Alipay (the health code app) does share sensitive information with the police; an example of such can be seen in the 1st of March 2020 edition of the New York Times.

Summarily, several projects revolving around mass surveillance have been embarked upon by the Chinese government, “Skynet” – a government video surveillance project, “Sharp Eyes” – another video surveillance project more specific to monitoring rural areas. All these projects have a network of over ten million cameras across cities all over China. Mass surveillance in China can only get tighter, and citizens might just have to accept the recent developments as a normal even after the coronavirus pandemic.

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