China fights coronavirus with a volley of apps

The first global health emergency of the artificial intelligence era has revealed the surveillance system that China has been applying for some time, transforming it into a tool to fight the virus more effectively.

by Alessandra Spalletta
24 June 2020
11 min read
by Alessandra Spalletta
24 June 2020
11 min read

China is building an enormous facial recognition database that will identify its 1.3 billion citizens. In three seconds. In October 2017, an article in the South China Morning Post clarified the Beijing government’s ambitions. China is second only to the US for investments in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Above all, it is obsessed with security. These two aspects define the Chinese race to conquer global technological leadership. Three years on, intrusive technology has become the most powerful weapon in the hands of the Chinese to defeat the new coronavirus - which first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019. 

Big Brother in the time of Covid

The surveillance system is already widely used to track the movements of the virus and check that citizens are complying with social distancing rules. After an initial delay, China implemented draconian measures to defeat the “common enemy”, from building two emergency hospitals in ten days to closing schools and offices. Chinese president Xi Jinping identified the epidemic as the “most serious health emergency since the founding of the Republic”. He regained control of the narrative and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took credit for the victory - albeit still partial - in the “people's war” against the “demon”.  

The biggest lockdown in history

Last February, when the coronavirus broke out in the capital of Hubei, 11 million inhabitants were quarantined. They were joined by the residents of 15 other cities in the central Chinese region most affected by the epidemic: a total of 60 million people in lockdown. The West was soon to experience the same suffering, the same fear. The people of China made a huge sacrifice, giving up individual freedom without hesitation, said the Global Times director Hu Xijin. There was no lack of distrust, which was expressed in the gaps left open by an unusually intermittent censorship. However, in a country with a Taoist soul clothed in a Confucian habit, the people recognize the Party-State’s role as the guarantor of law and order. Faced with the risk of chaos, which the Chinese fear, the people follow the directives, aided by the cultural subordination of the individual to society.

All-round surveillance

In those first lockout days, one fear of a pragmatic nature haunted the Chinese: potential contact with people infected in the days preceding the outbreak of the virus. The solution to dispel all doubts was soon ready: China Mobile, the national telephone company, launched an app that allowed passenger movements over the previous thirty days to be reconstructed. These systems monitored the health of citizens who were unaware of being checked. The desire for reassurance overcame any timid resistance to the violation of privacy. 

The World Health Organization repeatedly praised Beijing's management of the health emergency (amid repeated criticism of Chinese influence in the context of the WHO). At a press conference in Beijing last February, Bruce Aylward, a top virologist for the Geneva-based organization, called the Chinese approach “pragmatic” as it was “based on technology and science”. Taken up by state press agency Xinhua, he said: “The Chinese are making massive use of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence to track infections and offer online health consultations,” thus easing the pressure on hospitals. “AI has played a key role in the fight against Covid-19”, said the Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Li Meng more recently. 

Xi’s appeal to technology companies

The three private giants of the Chinese internet, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, enclosed in the collective BAT, sono da tempo al fianco delle autorità nella lotta alla criminalità e al dissenso politico. The technology developed in their headquarters is used in surveillance cameras installed in Chinese cities. The collaboration requested by Beijing – access to big data by law enforcement agencies - far exceeded that offered by Western technology giants to their governments. When Xi launched an appeal to technology companies last February to deal with the epidemic, Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent already had an arsenal of innovations ready to put in place: Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, robotics. A few examples.

Losing face

China has assumed a dominant position in the world video surveillance market: with 200 million cameras installed across the country, it has long been conducting experiments that use facial recognition to track every movement of the population. The leader in this sector is Sense Time, a 6 billion dollar giant specialized in facial recognition. In China, “losing face” is the worst thing that can happen, and “making someone lose face” means ending up in a state of mutual, extreme, embarrassment: Chinese etiquette requires everyone always to be given the opportunity of a dignified exit. Who would have imagined that one day everyone would lose face, but without the burden of embarrassment, to perform a whole series of operations: in addition to allowing use of a smartphone, which has replaced cash and become a driving force for online purchases, in China facial recognition is customarily used to pay bills or enter your home. Now you can even do it wearing a mask. 

Red Mirror

Sense Time itself has developed a platform capable of scanning citizens wearing a mask. Contactless body temperature scanning software has been used in subway stations, schools and public centers in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Another facial recognition company, Megvij, has developed a new system that can identify people with fever, using facial and body data. Infrared cameras are commercially available in the Chinese market, including those made by the company Zhejiang Dahua, which detect body temperature with an accuracy within 0.3 degrees. Baidu, China's biggest search engine, has also built them in its Artificial Intelligence Lab. 

These companies operate within a well-oiled system, with State support for private companies to produce technologies that exploit access to personal data for purposes that may be questionable in terms of privacy, but are decidedly useful in a coronavirus pandemic. Simone Pieranni explains it well in his latest book “Red Mirror” (Laterza, 2020). Data are a gold mine: companies that have access to them can create sophisticated products that will sell abroad; the government comes to own valuable information on the movement of the population, thus strengthening its surveillance powers. 

A walk in Hangzhou

Reuters told a story - taken up by Pieranni in his book - that explains how the collaboration between operators and authorities, presented by the Chinese government as an effective service for combating Covid-19, has entered the private life of Chinese citizens. A gentleman from Hangzhou, a city located in southern China, returns home after a trip from Wenzhou: the red zone. As soon as he walks through the front door, he is contacted by the local police who urge him not to leave the house, to take his temperature, and to contact the health authorities if he has a fever. What happened? Video surveillance cameras recorded his license plate data. The police got hold of the information and it triggered the report. It doesn’t end here, because eventually the man from Hangzhou gets fed up of being locked up at home and decides to take a breath of fresh air. After a few minutes, he is contacted by his employer. This time, facial recognition cameras spotted the man near Hangzhou Lake, and the authorities also contacted the company. 

Smart helmets

Other examples. Police in Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, have used smart helmets capable of detecting body temperature. The helmet emits a kind of alarm when someone with a fever comes within 5 meters. 

But the real snoops are smartphones: the power of the apps has allowed both the government and citizens to deal with the epidemiological crisis in an organized way. A primary example is the app for Alipay, Alibaba's financial arm, called Alipay Health Code. Used in over 200 cities, it assigns each citizen a different color, with red indicating people in supervised quarantine, yellow identifying people who are self-isolating and green indicating people who can enjoy freedom of movement. The app thus notifies users if they have come into contact with an infected person, selecting those who must stay at home and those who are instead allowed to attend public places. 

An army of drones and robots

Among the most invasive uses of Artificial Intelligence, one has been particularly highlighted by the western press. It concerns the use of drones to reproach unruly citizens; as in the video shot in Inner Mongolia, which went viral, in which an elderly lady is followed by a drone urging her to return home. Most of the drones in circulation are produced by a Shenzhen company called MMC (MicroMultiCopter). 

AI has played a key role, especially on the main battlefield, the medical one, explains Xinhua. In hospitals, robots have replaced human beings in performing a series of tasks, from delivering meals and medicines to sick patients, to sanitizing environments. Robots created by another Shenzhen company, Pudu Technology, for example, have been deployed in over 40 healthcare facilities across China. Furthermore, thanks to artificial intelligence-based platforms, voice assistants allow 200 calls to be answered in five minutes. 

Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, has developed an innovative swab that uses Artificial Intelligence to diagnose new cases of coronavirus in twenty minutes using computerized tomography scans (CT) with an accuracy rate of up to 96%.  AI will also play a significant role in the search for new drugs. This was announced by the Cyberspace Administration of China, in an article that appeared on its website, entitled: “Artificial Intelligence and Big Data help research and development of new coronavirus drugs.”