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Data-driven containment of COVID-19 in China

Data-driven containment of COVID-19 in China

A study supported by the Vodafone Insititute explores China’s protection framework for personal data and assesses benefits and risks of their data-driven approach to crisis management.

At the beginning of the year, the Chinese government was quick to deploy data-driven solutions in the battle against the coronavirus – and quick to declare its approach a model for others to follow. The new MERICS study “Tracing. Testing. Tweaking. Approaches to data-driven COVID-19 management in China” supported by the Vodafone Institute analyzes the various digital solutions China has used.

MERICS experts Kai von Carnap, Katja Drinhausen und Kristin Shi-Kupfer show how the Chinese state and companies deployed apps and data infrastructure, explore China’s protection framework for personal data, and assess the benefits and risks of China’s data-driven approach to crisis management.

Their key finding is that the speed and scope of adoption and adaptation of technology show Beijing’s ability to promote such solutions to meet urgent political – and to some extent public – needs.

Freedom or quarantine – China’s digital health control in times of COVID-19. (Photo: MERICS Mercator Institute for China Studies)

The government’s digital measures have contributed to an enhanced perception of public security among China’s citizens. But this has come at the expense of data protection. It has also exposed weaknesses in technical functionality – and the limitations of central and local authorities to secure full public support without greatly improving the safeguards on personal data.

MERICS’ research for this publication was supported by the Vodafone Institute. Inger Paus, Managing Director of the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications, argues:

“The study shows that Europe needs to be very thoughtful when implementing digital innovation in sensitive domains such as public health and should put a special focus on privacy, data security and accuracy. Furthermore, it underscores that digital solutions can just realize their full potential when implemented as part of a holistic, citizen-centric strategy.”

Using data to fight COVID-19

Only a week after WHO announced the official name of the novel coronavirus in February, a Chinese big-data working group started coordinating with the National Health Commission and other institutions across the country.

This kick-started the deployment of a wide range of AI and Big Data application to fight the virus: movement tracing tools, recognition and identification technologies, and digital health-sector applications were used in crisis management. China’s Information Platform on Epidemic Prevention and Control lists more than 540 applications.

AI and Big Data technologies versus COVID-19. (Photo: MERICS Mercator Institute for China Studies)

China’s data-driven solutions included upgrading and expanding components of the existing digital technology ecosystem, most notably facial recognition and “super apps” like WeChat.

To identify potential cases of infection, authorities used refined facial recognition technology with added temperature sensors and infrared identification.Hospitals and doctors used digital platforms for disease monitoring, and diagnostics and resource-management systems based on big data and AI.

They also offered free online health consultations. Entrenched links between government and business enabled Beijing to draw on large amounts of user data, often in real-time.

Prioritizing Security over Privacy

China’s data-driven approach rests on digitalization and informatization policies going back more than a decade – they include the comprehensive monitoring and tracking system, the so-called Social Credit System. These regulations focus on enabling stakeholders to aggregate and share data, rather than individuals’ right to privacy.

To share or not to share: Chinese and European approaches to data. (Photo: MERICS Mercator Institute for China Studies)

Despite the integration of protecting personal data into the new Civil Code of May 2020, legislation is still fragmented and focused on the private sector. Government departments have much greater legal scope to collect and share data than in Europe.

Assessment reveals a mixed picture

China’s data-driven management of COVID-19 has brought benefits – it has, for example, revived social activity under strict controls that rely on rapidly deployed applications to monitor people’s movements, contacts, and health. Digital platforms have improved health-sector research, treatment, and resource management.

But the swift roll-out of data-driven solutions to manage public health also highlighted a number of risks:

  • QR health codes proved only partly functional or serviceable
  • Personal data was misused by companies collecting data for commercial uses
  • Local Communist Party cadres misused access to personal data in a drive to detect infected people and reduce new cases.

Data leaks led to some social groups – for example, people from severely affected areas – being discriminated or stigmatized. Problems led to concerns about data protection being voiced publicly.

Europe should be cautious about lessons learned

In looking to learn from China’s experiences, the authors warn that only some of China’s data-driven solutions for managing COVID-19 are appropriate for Europe. Solutions for digital diagnostics and treatment should usefully be studied in more detail and could be implemented relatively easily in Europe. But contact tracing based on generous data collection and opaque algorithms and other Chinese-tested digital tools are incompatible with European data-protection values and norms.

You can read or download the full report “Tracing. Testing. Tweaking. Approaches to data-driven COVID-19 management in China” here.