The coronavirus is giving China cover to expand its surveillance. What happens when the virus is gone?

March 2, 2020, 4:55 AM UTC

The outbreak of Covid-19 has been anathema for most of China’s economy but the novel coronavirus was a shot in the arm for the state’s surveillance apparatus, which has expanded rapidly in pursuit of the epidemic’s spread. Facial recognition cameras, phone tracking technology and voluntary registrations have all been deployed to monitor the flow of people and the possible transmission of disease.

“When we talk about the Chinese surveillance systems currently, it has two purposes: the first is to monitor public health and the second is to maintain political control,” says Francis Lee, a professor in the school of journalism and communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Once the outbreak is controlled, however, it’s unclear whether the government will retract its new powers.

Look closely

Beijing’s surveillance systems rely heavily on domestic private enterprise. Computer vision companies like Sensetime—often called the world’s most valuable A.I. start-up, with a $7.5 billion private valuation—provide facial recognition algorithms that help authorities track individuals through crowds. Participants in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests last year wore masks to shield their identity from such practices.

Following the Covid-19 outbreak, however, Sensetime has tweaked its algorithms to develop software that can recognize individuals from just their eyes—as many in China are now wearing surgical masks. Conversely, Sensetime has also developed a program that can detect when someone is not wearing a mask—a useful tool as authorities in Wuhan, the outbreak epicenter, and other locales have made wearing masks mandatory in public.

Sensetime’s new software that can recognize people wearing masks has only been deployed in office buildings, where staff use facial scans to gain access, a representative for the firm said in an email to Fortune. However, the potential business applications of the technology—such as granting security access to offices or even to face-locking smartphones—provides it with more staying power once the virus has faded.

“Once these systems are in place, those involved in its developments—particularly companies with money to be made—argue for their expansion or their wider use, a phenomenon known as ‘mission creep,” Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told CNBC.

Checking in

While facial recognition provides a way to monitor crowds from a distance, governments have deployed close-range means of tracking individuals too, taking advantage of the nation’s high level of smartphone usage and developing apps to track migration flows.

The municipal government of Hangzhou worked with ecommerce giant Alibaba to launch a feature through the company’s mobile wallet app, AliPay, that assesses the user’s risk of infection. Users answer questions about their recent travel history and current health and the app generates a QR code based on their responses. Guards at checkpoints in residential buildings and elsewhere can then scan that code to gain details about the user, such as whether they’re low risk and can be let in or are high risk and should be quarantined.

Tencent, the operator of China’s most popular mobile messaging service, WeChat, launched a similar product in conjunction with China’s state planner, the National Development and Reform Council. Meanwhile, China’s national transport authority is working with services-on-demand superapp Meituan to roll out a system to collect contact information from public transport users. The system, targeted for launch across ten cities, requires bus passengers to scan a QR code when boarding that grants the authority access to contact information stored on the phone.

China already implements ID checks for intercity passengers, who have to produce their ID to board long-distance trains or buses. Under the cover of coronavirus, monitoring has crept to the municipal level. As of Friday, passengers riding Shanghai’s subway are required to scan QR codes plastered inside train carriages that will verify the user’s phone number, which is linked to the phone holder’s ID, creating a record of their movements.

Lee is skeptical that these more intrusive surveillance techniques will stick around once the virus subsides, arguing that in normal times the imposition might be seen as “too much of a nuisance for ordinary people.” However, John Bacon-Shone, associate dean of sociology at Hong Kong University, thinks that the ongoing threat of outbreaks will provide a constant justification for the new systems.

“In short, I am rather pessimistic that there will be full rollback of data collection once it has been implemented for several months with public health justification. I believe that much of the collection will continue, using public health fears to gain public support,” Bacon-Shone says.

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