China’s Novel Health Tracker: Green on Public Health, Red on Data Surveillance
May 4, 2020
By Shining Tan
Despite making many mistakes, particularly in regards to its lack of transparency, the Chinese government has not done everything wrong in managing the COVID-19 outbreak. One area of real success, and that may have application in other countries, is the rapid development of an online “health code” system (健康码). This innovative app tracks an individual’s travel, contact history, and biometric data (for example, body temperature) directly through one’s smartphone.
Figure 1: Health code in Alipay
Under health code rules initiated by Alipay (subsidiary of Alibaba) and Tencent, and later adopted by the State Council, all Chinese citizens are required to input into this app their personal information, including medical information, travel history, and COVID-19 contact history. A colored QR code is then generated with a color designated to identify their level of health risk. Specific standards vary across provinces, but the basic color scheme rules the same nationally. A green QR code allows an individual to travel within the city; a yellow one implies potential risks that require an at-home quarantine for 7-14 days; and a red code imposes a 14-day quarantine either at home or a centralized location. After the quarantine requirement is fulfilled, the code automatically reverts to green, permitting local travel again.
Figure 2: Color Guideline of Shanxi Health Code
The development and rollout of the health code system was fueled by fierce competition between Alibaba and Tencent. The two major Chinese tech companies simultaneously built and launched on February 9 their own systems in their respective headquarter cities, Hangzhou and Shenzhen. Competition between the two tech giants and wide support from local governments across China enabled the swift extension of the health code system across the entire country. A nationwide health code system was first embedded in Wechat at the end of February. So far it seems that Tencent is leading in this battle as its model emerged as the national standard in this field, and the portal for international travelers entering China is first embedded in Wechat. Within a month, the health code system was used over 6 billion times among 900 million users in Wechat alone.
Figure 3: Wechat's National Government Service Health Code Platform
The downside of having the private sector take the lead is the lengthy and challenging process of integrating multiple provincial systems into an integrated national system, a prerequisite to restoring domestic travel. For the first few weeks, a health code issued by one province was not necessarily recognized by another, especially if one province used the Tencent health code system and the other used the Alipay system. Meanwhile, given that virus control policies vary among provinces, a green QR code issued in one city may not be qualified as green in another, further complicating regional travel.
The lack of coordination between the two tech giants also caused user problems. Specifically, Tencent blocked the links to automatically switch to Alipay apps, creating obstacles for Alipay health code users. Technical issues have been an additional setback among users, such as a mismatched profile, incorrectly listed location, or failure to update the code. For example, users have filed cases reporting a green health code suddenly switching to red for unknown reasons, imposing an immediate quarantine on the user enforced through the loss of access to public spaces and services. These sudden and unexplained changes in health scores have created ongoing complaints about the system, with increasing anxiety that opaque algorithms overrule human judgement through arbitrary and sometimes problematic metrics.
In addition to users experiencing technical problems within the app, the possibility of large-scale harvesting of personal information has also led to widespread concerns about privacy protection. Although Tencent updated its privacy protection guidelines this past March, some analysts pointed out that there are still health code systems in many provinces that violate privacy regulations. While widespread application of the health code systems has pushed the Chinese government to adopt policies to strengthen privacy protection, it is still unclear how the government will manage the health code systems and the personal information that has been collected.
Apple and Google announced in April that they are combining forces to help health officials in the United States trace COVID-19 exposure risks by turning smartphones into tracking devices. The Australian government also launched an app based on a Singaporean one that uses Bluetooth wireless signals to track the user’s COVID-19 contact history. Unlike China’s digital health code tracking system that requires extensive personal information, this Australian app only asks users for basic information like age range, phone number, postal code, name or pseudonym, and promises to wipe all data after 21 days. While its effectiveness remains to be seen, the Australian practice provides a very different answer to the concern of how to strike the right balance between public health and data privacy.
Shining Tan is a research associate with the Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at CSIS.