Data scientist Rashid Elhawi looks at how China has rapidly utilised big data to fight the coronavirus, but believes the same tools will now be used to further strengthen authoritarian control once the viral threat has passed.
The novel coronavirus at its epicentre in China has left over 700 million people in lockdown.
For people to return to some normalcy, big data and artificial intelligence have been deployed to help combat its spread.
This has also resulted in the ever increasing expansion of China’s authoritarian government, extending the already highly sophisticated government surveillance system.
There are currently over 200 million CCTV cameras in China that can be used for tracking and facial recognition.
There are accounts from those under mandatory 14-day quarantine, receiving instant phone calls upon leaving the house.
Telecommunications companies have played a big role in expanding China’s surveillance state by tagging those that have received the virus.
The government has been able to establish a system where they can tell individuals that they’ve been in contact with someone that has/had the virus.
This helps early detection, which is the best chance to stop spread.
Some of the public health measures put in place to screen for possible symptoms are more akin to scenes from sci-fi movies.
In Chinese train stations, there are infra-red meters that take people’s ear-temperature as they walk through the gates.
If they are above a certain threshold, they are pulled aside for further testing.
There’s also the well-known facial recognition technology they’ve been training for some time now, which can accurately detect an individual in and amongst a million people.
A lot of China’s ability to be ridiculously accurate with their surveillance techniques has a lot to do with the data integration efforts of the national government.
Chinese people use their government-issued ID cards for most of their daily tasks, such as social media, buying groceries, taking a train or boarding a plane.
This level of information available to authorities about individuals, makes tracking people a much simpler task.
For this case of a viral outbreak, this infrastructure will help with tracking and curbing the spread of the virus.
Nonetheless, as many of you may already be thinking, what is going to happen with all that data?!
There are already well-documented privacy violations on part of the Chinese government, however this has only heightened data-privacy concerns of citizens.
Some are hopeful the data will be removed from government databases once the crisis is over.
Hopes, that my be more akin to wishful thinking, given China’s unparalleled system of social control.