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A driver showing his green health code to enter an apartment complex in China. Photo: Handout

Beijing rolls out colour-coded QR system for coronavirus tracking despite concerns over privacy, inaccurate ratings

  • Beijing residents will be assigned coloured QR codes, with only those with green codes being able to move around the city freely
  • The system, which has been rolled out in more than 100 cities across the country, has been criticised for a lack of transparency and potential mislabelling

China’s capital city has joined a national initiative to assign residents coloured QR codes that determine whether they have to be quarantined, despite concerns of mislabelling and privacy leaks.

The QR code system, launched through Ant Financial’s Alipay in Hangzhou on February 11, assigns users one of three coloured QR codes – green, yellow and red. Chinese state media outlet Xinhua News reported that the system covered three provinces initially – Zhejiang, Sichuan and Hainan – and the municipality of Chongqing with a total population of nearly 180 million, and would soon cover the entire country. It had been adopted in over 100 cities across the country within a week, according to Xinhua.

In Beijing, the mini-program can be accessed both through Alipay and Tencent’s ubiquitous app WeChat. Users can obtain their codes by entering their name, national identity number and registering with facial recognition.

A green code shows the user is not under quarantine and can move around the city freely, but those with yellow and red codes need to quarantine themselves at home or undergo supervised quarantine respectively. The status of users’ colour codes is refreshed at midnight daily.

Epidemic boosts China’s big data push but privacy still a concern

From next week, the program will also allow users to check the health codes of others by entering their identity numbers, according to a Xinhua report. This is to address the issue of people who do not have smartphones, such as the elderly or young children, Pan Feng, deputy chief of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Economy and Information Technology, said at a press conference on Sunday.

Pan added that the programme would allow foreigners to check on their colour status using documentation aside from Chinese identification numbers “as soon as possible”.

As central and provincial governments push to gather and analyse a large amount of data to help contain the spread of the disease, privacy and data security concerns have been mounting.

However, the rush to scoop up even more data to fight the outbreak has led to privacy breaches, especially for residents in the epicentre of Wuhan, some of whom had their names, addresses, daily movements and other personal data leaked on the internet amid the fear brought on by the spread of the disease.

The colour-based system, which determines the user’s quarantine status based on factors like travel history, duration of time spent in an outbreak-stricken area and relationships to potential carriers of the virus, has also been criticised for lacking transparency, with reports of people being marked incorrectly in Hangzhou, and authorities admitting that “some” ratings are not accurate.

Pan said at the press conference that data will only be stored for the same day, and the health code on the phone will only show users’ family names and the first and last two digits of their identification numbers.

Screenshot of the registration for the coloured QR code system on Alipay in Beijing, with first and last two digits of the user’s identification number blurred out.

“All the privacy information will be kept in the municipal government of Beijing and will be used only for epidemic prevention, and we will balance the use of data with data protection,” he said.

China’s national government service platform also separately launched a QR code system via WeChat last week that allows users to register their information and generate a code to show their health condition.

The code is needed for access to some community facilities and office buildings, and has been accessed over 400 million times, according to a Xinhua  report on Sunday.

The South China Morning Post is owned by Alibaba Group, an affiliate of Ant Financial.

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