As China lifts its coronavirus lockdowns, authorities are using a color-coded health system to dictate where citizens can go. Here's how it works.
- Provinces and cities across China are slowly lifting their strict coronavirus lockdown measures. Wuhan, where the coronavirus broke out, plans to end its lockdown on April 8.
- Local authorities are trying to prevent further spread by controlling citizens' movements via smartphone software installed in WeChat and Alipay, two popular instant-messaging and online payment apps.
- After people fill out a quick health survey, the software issues them with a colored health code - green, yellow, or red - which dictates whether they can leave the house and where they can go.
- Officials manning various checkpoints across the country are checking people's health apps to see where they are allowed to go. Anyone with a green code is free to travel.
- But Western nations are critical of this mass surveillance tool and questioning what else the data is being used for.
- Scroll down to see how it works.
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As provinces and cities across China gradually roll back their coronavirus lockdown measures, authorities trying to prevent another outbreak are using smartphone software to monitor citizens' health and dictate where they go.
The software is installed in WeChat and Alipay, the instant-messaging app, and Alipay, the online payment platform operated by Alibaba. Almost everyone with a smartphone in China has one or both of these apps.
In order to travel, people have to fill out a quick health survey. After that, the software issues them with a colored health code - green, yellow, or red - which dictates whether they can leave the house and where they can go.
The initiative was first introduced by officials in the eastern city of Hangzhou, but others have since followed suit. As of February 25, the program was being used in 200 Chinese cities. This number has likely grown.
Scroll down to see how the technology works and why some surveillance experts are concerned.
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As coronavirus cases appear to plateau in China, authorities are relaxing their lockdown measures and encouraging people to start leaving their homes again.
And as people start moving freely again, the government is trying to keep track of anyone who might still be infected to avoid further outbreak.
To do this, local governments integrated a tracking software into two commonly-used apps: WeChat, the instant-messaging app, and Alipay, an online payment platform part-owned by Alibaba.
Local authorities developed a health code program and integrated them into area users' apps.
To start traveling again, people have to fill out a questionnaire that asks for details like body temperature and health background. The software then analyzes it and generates a color code — green, yellow, or red — that identifies a person's health status.
Anyone with a red or yellow code is not allowed to travel. A red code means you either have or likely have the coronavirus, while a yellow code means you have had contact with another infected person.
A green code means you're symptom-free and allowed to travel. Anyone with a green code can go past checkpoints in subway stations, restaurants, hotels, and apartment blocks.
Here's what one of these checkpoints, seen in a subway station in Hangzhou, looks like. People show their codes on their phones to a security guard, who either wave them through or stop them.
People are constantly reminded that in order to get around, they must show their codes. Here, a staff member on a Wuhan subway is holding a sign that reads: "Always wear a face mask, avoid gatherings, scan code when getting off the train."
On February 25, the system had already been in use in at least 200 cities, with the goal of a nationwide rollout.
But it's still unclear how exactly the system classifies people and where the data is analyzed. Some users even reported seeing their color codes change without explanation.
Experts and activists have criticized China's mass surveillance, and are questioning what else this data is being used for.
Experts have also noted that this sort of surveillance is not unlike that in Xinjiang, where millions of Uighur Muslims are monitored by the Chinese government.
Both Tencent and Alibaba have firmly denied providing any user data to the government's health code program, saying that the developers have to ask for user permission before obtaining data outside the questionnaire.
But people in China think the system is vital in protecting public health, and say it makes them feel "safe."
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