China Enlists Tech Titans To Help It Track Coronavirus With Colour-Based QR Codes: Report

China Enlists Tech Titans To Help It Track Coronavirus With Colour-Based QR Codes: Report
Photo: Greg Baker, Getty

In its latest dystopian stab at curbing the spread of COVID-19, the Chinese government has employed two of the biggest tech giants in Asia to help it roll out a nationwide colour-based tracking system to keep tabs on those suffering from coronavirus symptoms, according to a new Reuters report.

Companies enlisted for this real-life sci-fi movie endeavour to contain COVID-19—the World Health Organisation’s name for the deadly coronavirus behind this global health emergency—include Alibaba Group Holdings, Asia’s largest digital advertising, e-commerce, and cloud platform as well as Tencent Holdings, one of the world’s largest video game companies and the force behind the popular messaging app WeChat.

As part of a collaboration with Beijing, Alipay, a payment app operated by Alibaba’s subsidiary Ant Financial, recently released a new feature that sends a colour-based QR code to individuals via smartphone based on their answers to an online health survey.

Depending on what symptoms they’ve been experiencing or whether they’ve travelled recently, they’re assigned one of three colours that’s tied to their ID number. Green means the user can travel freely; yellow prompts instructions for the user to remain quarantined for seven days; and red—used in the most severe cases— carries a 14-day quarantine period and instructs users to regularly check-in via an Alibaba chat app.

Last week, the feature rolled out to residents of Hangzhou in eastern China as part of a test run, and as of Sunday Alipay has begun working with federal authorities to begin implementing it nationwide. Per Reuters, state media aims to deploy this system at both travel checkpoints and within individual neighbourhoods in order to track anyone who might be at risk of spreading the disease. Two Hangzhou residents told the outlet they were asked to scan their QR codes before entering their apartment complexes, and a third was asked to show her code before being allowed into a local supermarket.

Tencent announced a similar feature Saturday as part of a partnership with China’s National Development and Reform Council. The system has been deployed in the southern city of Shenzhen and will soon branch out to the great Guangdong province, the company said in a social media post.

These state-sponsored corporate tracking programs join several other unsettlingly futuristic ways Chinese authorities have been using technology to monitor and combat the outbreak.

Earlier reports confirmed that police, in an effort to keep officers away from the public, have employed a QR-code system distributed via aerial drones to collect residents’ health information. Authorities have also enlisted land-based robots to help prevent human-to-human transmission of the virus. Authorities in the Yunnan province have also purportedly deployed a system similar to Alipay’s; residents claim they’re required to scan an assigned QR code before being allowed into buildings.

To date, COVID-19 is responsible for more than 1,700 deaths. The majority occurred in mainland China, where more than 100 million residents remain on a virtual lockdown with no foreseeable end. Around 70,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide in more than two dozen countries, per WHO statistics.