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In Coronavirus Fight, China Gives Citizens a Color Code, With Red Flags

A new system uses software to dictate quarantines — and appears to send personal data to police, in a troubling precedent for automated social control. As China encourages people to return to work despite the coronavirus outbreak, it has begun a bold mass experiment in using data to regulate citizens’ lives — by requiring them to use software on their smartphones that dictates whether they should be quarantined or allowed into subways, malls and other public spaces. But a New York Times analysis of the software’s code found that the system does more than decide in real time whether someone poses a contagion risk. It also appears to share information with the police, setting a template for new forms of automated social control that could persist long after the epidemic subsides.

The Alipay Health Code, as China’s official news media has called the system, was first introduced in the eastern city of Hangzhou — a project by the local government with the help of Ant Financial, a sister company of the e-commerce giant Alibaba. People in China sign up through Ant’s popular wallet app, Alipay, and are assigned a color code — green, yellow or red — that indicates their health status. The system is already in use in 200 cities and is being rolled out nationwide, Ant says. Neither the company nor Chinese officials have explained in detail how the system classifies people. That has caused fear and bewilderment among those who are ordered to isolate themselves and have no idea why.