The bio-surveillance state: an emerging new normal in Asia


The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred the use of digital technologies that are shaping people's lives and interaction with society. The development of apps to monitor the movements and health status of individual citizens will have long-term implications for privacy and safety. Nowhere is this more visible than in Asia.

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A district in Xian, China
Teaser Image Caption
Green means go: A neighborhood in Xi'an, China, regulates access with the Health Code app

When economic activity gradually resumed in China in mid-February, Chinese residents returned to a “new normal” under a strict surveillance infrastructure. They have their temperatures taken and personal information logged as they enter office buildings, residential communities and large commercial venues. And their freedom of movement depends on an app called Health Code (健康码), which was developed by China’s tech giants Tencent and Alibaba. The app is a de facto health passport very different from contact tracing apps.

The app assigns one of three stoplight colors, green, yellow, or red. Green indicates that a person is healthy, yellow or red indicate that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus and may be placed under home quarantine or medical observation. Implementation is not uniform across the country, but in general, a green code is required to travel domestically or enter areas such as large parks, hospitals, and places like gyms. As of March 10, Tencent claimed that the app covers nearly 900 million users in 300 cities and counties.

Health Code is one of the most radical solutions to a problem that governments all over Asia and around the world are struggling with: how to lift restrictions on public life while mitigating the risk of a new wave of infections. The Chinese solution is difficult to transfer to other countries. First, China’s existing techno-legal surveillance structure knows few limits on data collection by the state. Second, the app’s wide reach is made possible by the unique Chinese mobile ecosystem. Rather than as a standalone app, Health Code was introduced as a “mini-app”, a program within Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s Alipay apps. Thus it benefits from the network effects of these two apps, which nearly all smartphone users in the country already have installed.

Fears of a “digital leviathan” in China

Little is known about how Health Code collects data and based on which information it assigns the code colors, but according to Tencent’s Policy Research Center, Health Code relies on data from private and public sources, namely railways and aviation, telecom, public security, and health departments, down to local community offices, aggregated at provincial or city government levels. China’s “real name registration” system for purchasing a SIM card means that smartphones are de facto personal ID cards - any app sign-up or activity online is linked to a person’s national ID. Payment and GPS data may reportedly also be included via Tencent’s messaging service WeChat and Alibaba’s payment service Alipay, although this has not been officially confirmed.

A commentary that went viral on Chinese social media suggested that the Health Code app may risk creating a new “digital leviathan.” Yet rather than serving as a new data stream for the Chinese government, the app’s main utility is to function as a quick and trustworthy way for people and government or commercial agencies to verify health status. Recent coverage observes a relaxing and falling usage of the app in daily life.

The Health Code app is very different from Singapore’s contact-tracing app Trace Together, which has become the model for similar apps that are being developed in many Western democracies. The Singapore app uses Bluetooth to collect data about people with whom a person has been in close physical proximity (2 to 5 meters for over 30 minutes) over the past fourteen days. According to Singapore’s Government Technology Agency, it does not use location data and recorded data is only stored on an individual’s device in an encrypted format and for a limited amount of time (up to 21 days). If a person is confirmed as having tested positive, their close contacts are notified but must consent for their data to be sent to health authorities (although they could be charged under the Disease Prevention Act for concealing information). So far, there is still very little known about the app outside of the Singapore government's own claims.

Privacy takes a backseat in South Korea and Taiwan

At present count, at least 10 other countries and regions in Asia have introduced COVID-19 related apps, and the solutions range somewhere between the Chinese and the Singaporean approach. On this scale, the democracies South Korea and Taiwan have taken rather drastic measures. South Korea deployed a range of apps to enforce quarantine or share nearby confirmed cases, and it relied on a combination of rapid mass testing and data collection, combining cell phone GPS data, credit card payment information, and travel and medical records. Taiwan and Hong Kong pioneered an approach known as “digital fencing.” Using cellular and GPS data, their smartphones send out a warning message if a person leaves their digitally fenced apartment while they are in quarantine. Taiwan’s use of Big Data analytics to integrate data from multiple government departments is credited for helping to contain the outbreak. In Hong Kong, a solution relying on a combination of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular network was deployed via an app called “Stay Home Safe” and a bluetooth wristband that people under quarantine are obliged to wear.

A table of information about the different contact tracing apps in Asia

Privacy considerations have largely taken a backseat. According to Open Net Korea Director KS Park data collection occurs without judicial oversight in South Korea under the provisions of the Infectious Disease Act. TH Schee from the Open Knowledge Foundation Taiwan agreed that data collection during the pandemic occurs in a legal grey area. “Most people (even those within the government) are not even aware of what's been collected or what's been exchanged between various institutions,” he said.

At this stage there are no definitive answers on what type of technology intervention will lead to better results in flattening the infection curve. Especially since the use of tracking or tracing technology is just one of many interventions in public disease control efforts – next to testing, public hygiene and socio-economic conditions that may or may not allow people to isolate. However, initial findings from South Korea, Taiwan, and China suggest that being able to quickly access important data from a variety of sources is more useful than Bluetooth-based contact-tracing apps in assisting manual tracing efforts and testing.

Singapore struggles with low usage of app

Another problem is that tracing apps rely on high smart phone penetration and high adoption rates to be effective. Most countries in South and Southeast Asia lag far behind Singapore, South Korea or even China, which has a smartphone penetration rate of roughly 82 percent. India’s recently introduced Aarogya Setu app is a Bluetooth and GPS-based contact-tracing app that is also adopting Health Code’s traffic light code features. But it stands little chance to reach China’s adoption levels even if the government has now made it mandatory since even in the capital New Delhi a mere 51 percent of the population have access to the internet.

Even Singapore with its extremely high internet and mobile phone penetration struggled with adoption. The Trace Together app has only about 1.1 million users, under one fifth of the city-state’s population, and well below the suggested 60 percent threshold experts suggest is needed for the app to be effective. In some cases, the gap in app adoption reflects socio-economic disparities in a society. In Singapore, a recent surge in cases was caused by a spread in dorms of low-wage migrant laborers, most of whom did not have the app installed.

Promises of technological solutions can lead to a phenomenon known as the “streetlight effect”, the tendency to search where it is easiest to look. Here, the ones missed out on are the poorer, less privileged communities who do not feature on the digital map. While internet connectivity has soared in the region over the recent decade, it is far from evenly distributed. Moreover, an offline infrastructure has to be in place to contain or slow the spread of COVID-19. As one of the developers of Trace Together points out, apps, which may be prone to yielding false positives, are not meant to function as a substitute for manual contact tracing and testing.

The public health outcomes and potential harms of these technologies are not yet known. Policymakers around the world struggle to navigate uncharted territory while civil rights activists are alarmed by the “new normal” under bio-surveillance and fear that apps built for one purpose might end up being used for others. In the midst of this pandemic, there are more questions than answers but it is clear Asia will be at the frontline of these issues.