China develops a data-hungry app for tracking coronavirus

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The novel coronavirus continues to wreak havoc in China.
Can an app help stop the spread of coronavirus in China?
Photo: Apple

The Chinese government developed an app that lets users check whether they are at risk of infection from the novel coronavirus spreading across the country.

The location-aware “close contact detector” app reveals whether users have been close to another person suspected of having coronavirus. The data-hungry app serves as yet another illustration of China’s surveillance-heavy approach to controlling its citizens.

In order to use the app, users must scan a Quick Response code on their smartphones with apps such as WeChat or Alipay. They then must enter their name and ID number. The app then reveals their proximity to other people diagnosed with coronavirus.

“In China, and across Asia, data is not seen as something to be locked down, it’s something that can be used,” Hong Kong-based tech lawyer Carolyn Bigg told the BBC. “Provided it’s done in a transparent way, with consent where needed … From a Chinese perspective, [this is] a really powerful tool that really shows the power of data being used for good.”

According to the BBC:

The Chinese government defines ‘close contact’ as coming near to, with no effective protection, confirmed, suspected or mild cases of the coronavirus while the person was ill, even if they were showing no symptoms at the time.

‘Close contact’ covers:

  • People who work closely together, share a classroom, or live in the same home
  • Medical staff, family members or other people who have been in close contact with patients and their caregivers
  • Passengers and crew who have been on planes, trains and other forms of transport with an infected person

For example, all air passengers within three rows of an infected person, as well as cabin staff, are seen as being in close contact, while other passengers would be recorded as having general contact.

Coronavirus app tracks the spread of virus

Unlike Google Flu Trends, the disastrous data-crunching service from several years ago, it sounds like the new Chinese app lacks a predictive element. Instead, it simply singles out individuals on a map. Nonetheless, such an approach won’t necessarily work. Aside from the risk of causing social panic, it’s not yet clear at what stage the deadly coronavirus is at its most contagious.

More than 1,000 people have so far died from coronavirus in China. Cases continue to emerge in other countries around the world as well. Coronavirus deaths in China now surpass the number of people who died from the 2002-3 SARS epidemic. That outbreak killed 774 people worldwide.

Apple, which relies on Chinese manufacturers to produce most of its products, continues to face disruption due to the virus. It temporarily closed Apple Stores in the country. Key players in the Apple supply chain also temporarily shuttered their factories in China. And when they reopen, many do so with only a comparatively small number of employees.