To slow down any virus, it’s important to interrupt person-to-person transmission. Officials in China have used a mix of high- and low-tech methods to find and monitor people who may have been exposed to the virus, which has infected more than 77,600 and killed upwards of 2,600 in the country as of Feb. 24. Authorities have sourced data from phone carriers and called on private tech companies to set up virtual health hotlines in order to trace everyone who’s been in or near Hubei province, home to Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. They’ve also activated an extensive network of Communist Party members and community groups, encouraging citizens to monitor neighbors’ vital signs and whereabouts.
A 25-year-old who studies in Wuhan told Bloomberg News he was surprised when officials found him about 300 miles (482 kilometers) north in his hometown of Henan. The postgraduate student, who asked not to be named because he feared police retaliation, left Wuhan in early January. Two weeks later, a Henan police officer called, saying he suspected the student had visited the seafood market where the virus is thought to have originated and asked if the student was feeling all right. Soon, the student was overwhelmed
Mobile phones—which, like social media accounts, are linked to Chinese citizens’ national identity numbers—are an integral part of China’s surveillance. Now they’re a key part of its virus-containment efforts. China’s big three state-owned phone carriers have responded to the call last month by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to contribute data to fight the outbreak. As of Feb. 12, China Mobile Ltd.’s 300-strong big-data team had fulfilled more than 400 government requests for data on people’s movement. China Telecom Corp.
Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s
The system, in use at offices, malls, and subways, scans people seeking to enter and allows or denies them access based on their ratings. Provinces including Hubei are requiring anyone selling cough or fever treatments to report the buyers’ identities to the government, and plan to use purchase data to find people who might be ill.
Some of the new tools are intensifying the paranoia that’s setting in as some of China’s 1.4 billion people isolate themselves at home, with little to do but search the internet. Baidu Inc.’s map function now shows how crowded a neighborhood is so people can avoid congested areas, while
Since late January, spreadsheets and lists identifying people living in or returning home from Wuhan have been circulating around social media, including Weibo. A Wuhan resident included in one of the lists says he recently received an influx of strange calls. The resident, who asks to remain anonymous to prevent further harassment, says he quarantined himself alone at home for 14 days because his parents both tested positive for the virus. His mother recovered after spending four days in the hospital, while his father remained
The panic and fear that blanket surveillance creates could actually undermine efforts to contain the epidemic. China had come under criticism for silencing doctors in Wuhan who suspected the virus was serious early on, and the suspicion facing people thought to be potentially ill could discourage the transparency needed to engender trust and fight an epidemic, says Stuart Hargreaves, a law professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong who researches surveillance and privacy issues. “If you had an approach that encouraged the reporting of ‘negative’ information, rather than punishing it, then this outbreak might have been limited at a much earlier point,” he says.
Blanket surveillance is different from so-called contact tracing, a practice that goes back centuries to map a disease’s spread, most famously when Dr. John Snow used it to find the source of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London—a water pump. The usefulness of high-tech surveillance tools will be limited until officials identify the incubation period of the new
China’s surveillance system has long alarmed human rights advocates, who point to the detention of about 1 million Uighur and other Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang, restrictions on the open web, and tightening social control. That’s led to concerns about how this new flood of tracking and data collection might be used by the government, even after the outbreak has passed. “We need to make it very clear what health authorities are doing and why they are doing it,” says Fukuda, who is advising Hong Kong's government on the