China is feared by many in the west as being a monitoring hub and the country’s usage of health tracking QR codes was part of the tools it used in combating and containing the Coronavirus outbreak but now being set out to be used on a much broader level.
The Health QR codes are well embedded in the country’s popular platforms such as AliPay smartphone app and WeChat, the QR code uses self-reported and automatically collected travel and medical data to give a user either red, yellow or green rating which indicates the likelihood of either having the virus or not.
And as such, to freely walk around in China demands you have a green rating and since February, residents and citizens of China have been asked to present their health QR codes in order to gain entry into public places such as restaurants, parks as well as other venues.
The codes had so far met with little public resistance, seen as a necessary tool to get the economy back up on its feet again but then eastern city of Hangzhou proposed on Friday a permanently assigned resident colored health badge and then give each one a score from 0 – 100 based on their medical records and lifestyle habits.
Images were then published by the hangzhou’s health authority which showed people would be rated on how much they exercised, their eating and drinking habits and whether they smoked and even how much they slept the night before.
With all this criteria, it seems overbearing as though the residents and citizens of this places are prisoners and the tracking measures had set off criticism from thousands of users on Weibo, Chinese Twitter-like platform while fueling debate about privacy and data security in the country – a debate that comes just as China is poised to enshrine individuals’ rights to privacy and personal data for the first time as part of the country’s first civil code.
“My physical health is private, why would you want to collect information and build a leaderboard?” said one commentator on Weibo in reaction to the Hangzhou proposal. Online personal data is easily bought and sold in China and the likelihood of personal information being hacked was also a major concern. “Why would it be my company’s business if I’m seeing a doctor?” said another commentator.
Ma Ce, who is a lawyer and based in Hangzhou who tracks policy law said users had the right to demand that data collected to prevent the spread of the novel Coronavirus be destroyed once the crisis is over due to the risk of it being leaked out. Other local authorities while excited by the potential to expand use of the health codes have not gone beyond the borders of Hangzhou.
As for the southern city of Guangzhou, this health code platform has expanded to include services that will help residents book online consultations with local hospitals as well as purchase of face masks. Fujian province has said it wants to expand its QR code to encompass medical treatment and drug purchases.
Whether Hangzhou is successful in its proposal and just how much privacy people in China will have post-pandemic are questions still very much up in the air.
But with that, there is new right which is meant to enable individuals to take action if data is leaked are set to be approved after much deliberations by China’s annual meeting of parliament which began on Friday.
The CEO of the Chinese popular search engine, Baidu – Robin Li and other delegates to the meeting have also made a number of proposals which includes data collected during the epidemic to be destroyed after it ends or that rules should be put in place on how the data are being managed.
But at the same time, it looks like health QR codes and their expanded use are here to stay as China presses ahead with national standards so that problems with data sharing and people travelling between cities and provinces can be avoided.
“In the future, the ‘health code’ has a wide range of application scenarios,” state news agency Xinhua said last week.