Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 August 2020

Hiding coronavirus symptoms is now a crime in Beijing

Chinese nationals who conceal coronavirus history are being blacklisted under the country's social credit system

People wear protective face masks following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease at Lujiazui financial district in Shanghai, China March 19, 2020. REUTERS
People wear protective face masks following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease at Lujiazui financial district in Shanghai, China March 19, 2020. REUTERS

Beijing authorities announced on Monday that people caught entering the city and failing to disclose any medical history related to coronavirus will have their social credit scores penalised in violation of new regulations.

“The Beijing police will resolutely crack down on handling illegal activities such as falsely reporting information, concealing illness and refusing to implement epidemic prevention and control measures,” the authorities posted online.

The Abacus, a local technology news platform, reported on Tuesday that a 37-year-old Chinese woman flew from the US to Beijing last week with a fever and cough but allegedly failed to disclose her personal health status to flight attendants.

The Beijing police declared her a “confirmed case” in a press conference on Monday and the Shunyi Public Security Bureau filed an investigation into the woman. She could be charged for impairing the prevention and control of infectious diseases and see her social credit score slashed, police said.

In January, the Rongcheng City Social Credit System called on the public to take an active role in epidemic prevention issuing the "Application Regulations on Credit Incentives and Punishments During the Prevention and Control of New Coronavirus Epidemics."

Other local governments in China have called for similar regulations to reward or punish certain behavior during the coronavirus outbreak.

The social credit system was established in 2014 with the aim of encouraging the public to be more “trustworthy” through measures that include the blacklisting of lawbreakers and the “red-listing” of those who show exemplary behaviour, such as paying bills and taxes on time or donating blood.

Crimes range from jaywalking to eating food on the subway, while punishments include being barred from taking civil service jobs, sending one’s children to private schools, booking plane or train tickets, and buying property.

In February, Shanghai established a policy to deduct credits for refusing to obey epidemic prevention procedures. The new regulations also increased credit incentives for volunteering to assist police and epidemic prevention personnel.

In January, more than 18,000 people received credit points for volunteer services.

China has official guidelines for building its social credit system but there is currently no legal framework for these systems in place. The way China's social credit system works at the moment is somewhat erratic, with local authorities enforcing their own rules and ideas about what constitutes disciplinary behaviour.

The coronavirus has been devastating for China, which has the largest global death toll from the disease, but it’s also been a catalyst for new technology with tech companies pushing out new apps and features to show users whether they travelled with coronavirus patients and highlighting areas of a city that have recorded coronavirus cases.

In March, reports emerged of a new system using software to dictate quarantines. The Alipay Health Code system uses big data to draw automated conclusions about whether someone is a contagion risk. People’s names, ID numbers, contact information and details about recent travel are recorded and a color code is assigned. A green code allows its holder unrestricted movement. Those marked with a yellow code may be asked to stay at home for seven days and red means a two-week quarantine.

China is not the only country to harness data in an attempt to combat the coronavirus pandemic. On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the country’s internal security agency to tap into cell phone data retracing the movements of people who have contracted the coronavirus and identify others who should be quarantined for crossing paths with them.

Dr. Scott Hale, a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, says that technology is key and is being used in a number of innovative ways to combat the coronavirus. “South Korea is using alerts sent to mobile phones to keep residents up-to-date in a fast moving situation. These allow people to have geographically relevant and timely information.”

Privacy advocates, however, argue that implementing regulations against citizens through a social credit system is a dangerous gamble with the personal information of millions of people - especially when responding to something as new and uncertain as the coronavirus pandemic.

Updated: March 19, 2020 10:00 PM

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